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Review: ‘UnReal’ Season 2 Finale Plays It Safe to Start Over in Season 3

Sarah Shapiro's "UnREAL" set its acerbic sights high in Season 2, but ended up settling so it can try again in Season 3.

UnREAL Ep. 210 - "Friendly Fire" - Day 06 of 07, June 15, 2016, Surrey, BC, Canada Shiri Appleby & Constance Zimmer finale

Bettina Strauss/A&E Networks

“This is what’s wrong with America: women constantly hurting other women.”

While absolutely on point, Yael’s (Monica Barbaro) comment to Rachel (Shiri Appleby) during Monday’s “UnREAL” finale might sound out of place to anyone who still remembers where we started in Season 2. Rachel and Quinn (Queen Constance Zimmer) began the year by snagging matching “money dick power” tattoos and promising to make “Everlasting” ever-relevant by featuring the first black suitor. The focus leaned heavily into race and how race was discussed on TV — as Rachel sacrificed everything to get there — but that worthy cause was all but forgotten by the finale.

Yes, when Darius (T.J. Britt) made the surprising choice to pick the previously disqualified contestant, Ruby (Denée Benton), the moment was meant to convey how Rachel had succeeded in orchestrating a genuine interaction without orchestration: actual reality in reality TV. But really, as the camera panned over face after face of veritably moved cynics, the weight of the scene fell first to Quinn, who an episode prior was told she can’t have children and thus broke up with the man who wanted them. Her reaction wasn’t based on race, just as “UnREAL” Season 2 never really dug into the problems associated with the general whiteness of romantic reality shows. It was based in her conflict with Rachel; a conflict that went on far too long.

Zimmer admitted as much in a post-finale interview with IndieWire:

I do think Rachel and Quinn will go into the next season bonded more than ever. I’m excited about that because I was really upset this season by how much Rachel and Quinn were at odds. I like them so much more when they are bonded – when they cannot leave each other’s side — and it kind of feels like that’s what’s going to happen.

That sounds like good news for Season 3, but it’s hard to believe the drama will again partake in authentic engagement after a year where it largely dodged the issues. Because this year began with Rachel and Quinn on the same team — a new target in their sights, before devolving into in-fighting — it’s hard to trust that their newly-minted bond will last and that “UnREAL” can get back to eviscerating targets worthy of its two leads’ combined, justifiable animosity.

UnREAL Season 2 Episode 10 Finale Shiri Appleby & Constance Zimmer

Still, it could have been worse. “UnREAL” may not have succeeded in its ambitions, just as Rachel failed in her own, but the fact that it’s still prepared to take big swings is encouraging (if not fully satisfying) while gearing up for Season 3.

One could argue Rachel only gave up her quest to change television for the better because it was proven that she couldn’t — at least, not on “Everlasting.” Her attempts at sincerity were met with hostility from the top brass, and her own efforts crossed enough lines to destroy the lives she was trying to improve. Darius may never play football again. His best friend was shot (by a cop) because of her scheming. Even Ruby’s refusal of Darius’ proposal in the finale proves the “Everlasting” model of entertainment is flawed, and contestants must buck against its parameters to find true romance.

Now we’re facing a new season where Rachel and Quinn have to decide how they can justify their jobs. If all their hard work in the false reality of “Everlasting” only leads to legitimate trouble in the real world, how can either of them keep doing what they’re doing? If the question sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly what we asked to start Season 2. The answer was, “To drag the world, kicking and screaming, into a more accepting, progressive TV reality.” But Season 2 seemed to prove that intention impossible, as the harder Rachel tried to win the war by losing battles, the worse things got for everyone — herself included.

So why come back for Season 3? The easy answer is Quinn. Her arc — largely freed from the racial discussion as she put good business above social justice — took the show to a truly relevant, inescapable area: professional women facing a running clock. Her relationship with John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd) may have seemed too perfect, but that’s because it was — Quinn couldn’t give him the one thing he wanted in a relationship, and, more importantly, she may not have wanted them. In the penultimate episode, she ended their relationship because it was the only choice left for her to make. Now she faces a future where Chet is her de facto husband and “Everlasting” their child. How will she react to that concept after Season 2’s final tragedy?

In that question, as well as what’s facing Rachel — finding purpose in a profession she can’t escape — “UnREAL” still has hope. We’re entering Season 3 with the same questions we had entering Season 2. While a general lack of progress isn’t exactly something to applaud, the writers could have blown things up so badly there was no way to recover. Now, they’ve set themselves up to take a mulligan on Season 2 entirely. “UnREAL” may not examine race again when they start over in Season 3, but they have to answer the questions we care about within Quinn and Rachel’s relationship — without turning them against each other. That’s something we should all want to watch.

Grade: B-

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