Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Review: 'UnREAL's' second season relied on shock value, much to its detriment

Over the summer, I'll be watching and writing about a whole host of shows, ranging from beloved long-running series to those eyeballed by very few viewers. To see the articles that I've written, click here; for my list of shows to watch, click here.

Back in the penultimate scene of UnREAL's first season finale, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) share the following exchange:

"We killed somebody, didn't we?"

"Yeah. Let's not do that again."

By the end of the second season, not only had Rachel caused the shooting and near-death of Romeo (Gentry White), cousin of suitor Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), her former lover and Everlasting's former DP, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), had run off the road and murdered both temporary Everlasting showrunner and Rachel's recent lover Coleman Wasserman (Michael Rady), and contestant Yael (Monica Barbaro), who were going to expose the show for what it really is ("A vortex of evil and dysfunction turning everything it touches to sh-t, as last season's suitor Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma) describes), and Rachel and Quinn for the payoffs and cover-ups relating to their crimes. Basically, the exact opposite of what the pair had agreed upon.

That typifies the issues that the second season ran into. A shift in focus from any sense of coherent narrative to a story over-reliant on shock value twists and big moments that carried little to no weight and were discarded freely whenever the writers decided they wanted to move to the next one. If that sounds familiar to you, that might be because it's essentially the same major issue I had with the show's otherwise great first season. Except in season two, it was cranked up to eleven and became all that UnREAL seemingly knew how to do.

Very little exemplifies this greater than two key moments. The first came in the season's seventh episode, "Ambush", where Darius and Romeo stole a car for a joyride with Yael and Tiffany (Kim Matula), only for Romeo to get shot after Rachel calls the police on them in an attempt to make "groundbreaking television." The second comes an episode later as Rachel, fresh from her self-admission into a mental hospital under her mother's care, admits to Coleman that she was raped as a 12-year-old by one of her mother's patients, and she has been treating her daughter ever since in an attempt to keep her quiet. In the scenes and episodes that followed both of these events, there was about as much time spent discussing them as had been taken to actually show them in the first place. That is, to say, a few minutes at most.

In the case of the latter, it's a risky move even when handling the issue with the utmost care. Incorporating rape into the backstory of a female character is a tough move, especially when that show wants to assign all blame on that character's damage on it, and arguably should be avoided. But in the case of the former, it's something that UnREAL seemingly wanted to explore in its second season with its use of a black suitor (and the repeated exposition of Rachel attempting to claim that in doing so, Everlasting was making history and television that mattered). And yet, it barely even scratched the surface of trying to deal with real issues and instead opted for lazy, haphazard storytelling in a similar fashion to how Quinn was so hell bent on using the same old, tired formula to "make" romance and ignoring the genuinely big thing that the show had a black suitor for the first time.

Ruby (Denée Benton), a Black Lives Matter activist, joined Everlasting on Rachel's persuasion that she'd have a significant platform to make her voice heard. She was cut midway through the season, after getting very little in the way of promoting her views and instead falling for Darius. Despite her temporary inclusion, UnREAL rarely made the effort to try and say anything in particular about racism in America, beyond the fact that it exists. The decision to include the police shooting was, in theory, a solid idea, but its execution showed everything wrong with this season. In the closing minutes after Romeo took the bullet, neither he nor Darius featured on screen; instead, the camera and story were focused entirely on Rachel and her reaction to the whole thing. What's more baffling is that even when the show seemed to be providing meta-commentary on itself as Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) tells her, "This is not your story to tell," the focus refused to shift, remaining with Rachel and her descent into darkness. After that, it was barely spoken of again. Quinn's speech to her crew at the beginning of the next episode was about as much coverage as the show gave it. It didn't even bother to inform us directly that Romeo was still alive (the only reason you might assume he didn't die was the fact that Darius returned to Everlasting) until he turned up in the finale, nor did it show us Darius visiting his cousin in the hospital or his immediate reaction to any of it - injury to his back included.

This is the epitome of how not to handle a sensitive social issue, a crash course in exactly what to avoid if you, as a writer or showrunner, are even contemplating using your platform to provide commentary on the world at large. Essentially, it was for shock value. There was absolutely no build up to Rachel deciding that calling the cops on Darius would be a good idea; it all happened on a complete impulse rather than anything she had planned and, as was to be expected, it went horribly wrong. Once the episode had shocked viewers with the scene, UnREAL had no need for the plot anymore and abandoned it to be forgotten. And the entire point behind it all was to fuel Rachel's journey, something that could have been achieved with a developed arc that wasn't going to completely spit in the face of literally anyone who sees racism and police brutality as an issue. Last season's decision to have Mary commit suicide may not have been the greatest idea, but it was built to and had weight in its aftermath.

Season two was almost like the creative team looked at Mary's suicide, decided that it was the most successful aspect of its freshman season, and attempted to top it as best they could as many times as they could, without making any of the attempts mean anything. They couldn't have been more wrong.

What made the first season work was the dynamic between Rachel and Quinn, and the sophomore run spent much of its time with the two either at odds or entirely separated. As a result, we were left with the terrific performances from both Appleby and Zimmer but without them able to show off UnREAL's greatest strength, instead leaving the pair to share most of their scenes with other people. Again, plot twists thrown at viewers at breakneck speeds seemed more important than reuniting the two leads. But the attempt at a coherent story throughout came mostly through a dick-measuring contest over who could take control of Everlasting, and it bogged down everything. Introducing Coleman to run the show was a mistake - attempting to shake up the personnel behind-the-scenes of Everlasting is not the way to prevent UnREAL from becoming monotonous and repetitive like actual reality shows do - as was basing all of the problems between Rachel and Quinn on the former's attempt to seize power when Chet (Craig Bierko) threw his hat into the ring, and her subsequent relationship with Coleman. Much of Everlasting became Quinn pulling greater and greater stunts to undermine Coleman and Rachel, like bringing Ruby's father to the set while she and Darius had sex or bringing back Adam to entice his former lover away from Coleman, and it became tiring viewing.

It didn't help that by the end of the season, UnREAL had turned me against both Rachel and Quinn. Yael's poisoning and defecation on national TV was the straw that broke the camel's back, with Rachel's almost sociopathic expression utterly putrid. Quinn's maniacal laughter was to be expected, and I've learnt to take that as a part of her character (even then, I struggled), but one of the things I loved about season one was how broken Rachel was doing these despicable things, and how much it seemed to hurt her. This was her and the show wallowing in their own disgusting ways, taking pleasure out of something so diabolically repulsive that I lost all sense of rooting for either character. The season did very little to convince me to like Coleman, but at this point, I saw no reason why I should care that he was going to expose the two leads. If the season had given any real due diligence to Jay or Madison (Genevieve Buechner) or even Darius, I'd have been left with an entry character, but instead, there was nothing and no one to give a damn about.

That is, perhaps, the biggest issue moving forward. (Well, that and the show's insistence that Jeremy is a character who matters, when Jeremy is absolutely not a character who matters.) Season three needs to be everything that the second season was not and focus on telling a tight story about characters whom I can be invested in, using plot twists infrequently and actually caring about them rather than throwing hundreds of them at the wall and hoping they stick.

And if Rachel and Quinn are split up again next season, it'll serve as undeniable proof that the first season's success was a complete fluke and that the writers of UnREAL have zero understanding of what made people love it in the first place.

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