Last year, the first season of “UnREAL” captivated critics by taking a premise that could have, on the surface, led to easy parody, and making it so much more. Creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro didn’t just skewer the conventions of “The Bachelor” along the lines of Ken Marino and Erica Oyama’s (very funny) “Burning Love,” but instead took the framework of a dating show and used it to focus on the lies we tell ourselves about love and relationships — compared to the truth of human connection.
Season 2 premieres Monday, June 6, and unlike Season 1 — where all the players entered with uneasy alliances and motivations — “UnREAL” dives right into the backstabbing. The first episode is even called “War,” as Quinn’s (Constance Zimmer) newfound power over the “Everlasting” franchise, with Rachel (Shiri Appleby) as her loyal consigliere, is immediately threatened.
The result is delicious cruelty, with no shortage of the snappy and sometimes jaw-dropping one-liners that grabbed us in Season 1. Here’s just the tip of the iceberg, from Rachel: “We don’t solve problems. We make them and point cameras at them.”
That’s the perfect distillation of the attitude which has made “UnREAL” such addictive television… If you can take it. It’s a show that perfectly captures an intrinsic fact of life in production: Every project feels like it has life-or-death stakes. And when it’s a matter of life or death, blood tends to get spilled.
Metaphorical blood (for now), but that doesn’t mean wounds aren’t inflicted. For one thing, Chet (Craig Bierko) is back with a new life philosophy copied straight from a MRA manifesto. Also, without revealing any spoilers, Episode 2 introduces a major new player at the end, and I’m eager to see how that affects the never-ending power struggles of “UnREAL” in the episodes that follow.
Also, it was revealed months ago that “UnREAL” would throw a major twist into this season’s action: bringing a black suitor to a dating competition (something that, in the real world, the big dating show franchises have never done).
In the first two episodes made available for review by Lifetime, that choice has given the show a rich buffet of material. Despite Rachel’s oft-proclaimed beliefs that by showcasing a black lead, they have an opportunity to “change the world,” she and her fellow “Everlasting” producers have no interest in playing the PC angle. Black Lives Matter and the Confederate flag are deliberately put front and center right away — not in an effort to be topical, but to contextualize the ways in which racism is an active and tangible part of today’s society.
But never fear: the new lead gets real definition as a character, beyond his ethnicity. B.J. Britt enters the scene as perhaps one of the show’s most likable new additions, which creates a fresh energy within the ensemble. Last year’s central bachelor was played with a perfect mix of charm, smarm and self-interest by Freddie Stroma. But as Darius, Britt seems to be a bit more sincere in his intentions — which, honestly, comes as a bit of a relief in comparison to the cruelty being flung around.
(Stroma, following “UnREAL” Season 1, joined the cast of “Game of Thrones” for Season 6. But I bet he feels right at home there.)
As always, the dynamic between Quinn and Rachel remains one of the show’s core narrative threads, as Zimmer and Appleby once again bring to life one of television’s most complex and capitvating female relationships, impacted by a new shift in their respective roles. There’s a beauty to the idea of women mentoring women in an inhospitable world… and then there’s whatever’s happening between these two. It’s not simple and it’s probably not healthy. But in a show that operates at a certain level of heightened reality, it’s one of the most true things on screen.
Yes, “UnREAL” is about a reality dating show, in which girls in pretty dresses fight for true love. But it’s also a series committed to depicting characters who engage in some awful human behavior, without losing sight of their inherent humanity. A show about all the dark depraved thoughts and feelings that haunt us all, as we seek any sort of connection, romantic or otherwise. And it’s funny. Sometimes, it’s hard to be sure how real anything is in this world. But the world of “UnREAL” is worth living in — at least for an hour a week.
“UnREAL” Season 2 premieres Monday, June 6 at 10pm on Lifetime.