Let’s get this out of the way: “UnREAL” Season 3 still lacks the scintillating spark that made the show’s debut must-see TV, but it has also made marked, knowing improvements after a sophomore run that crashed and burned (so to speak). The first five episodes are so annoying uneven, it’s hard to settle on a declarative reaction. On the one hand, using a suitress (rather than a suitor) to wisely keep the focus on women pays off in better arcs for Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) — so yay, “UnREAL” is good again! But on the other, the suitress herself (played by the wonderful Caitlin Fitzgerald) is poorly utilized, and just when the show starts rolling, it inexplicably and maddeningly derails itself — so boo, “UnREAL” is still a mess.
At its peak, Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s behind-the-scenes satire of reality TV made you hate that you loved what you were watching, but that was the whole point. It took you so far inside the belly of the beast you couldn’t help but admire and engage with the final product: a “Bachelor”-esque show that, in this framing, helped expose culpability in its characters as well as viewers at home. The low-brow melodrama manufactured for the fake series and within the real one proved exciting, while breaking down its meta commentary on reality TV and women’s roles throughout media (among other issues) stimulated the mind long after the twists and turns played out.
Season 2 had a number of problems, but most of them related back to inefficiency and over-expediency. The hollow new characters, hackneyed romances, and half-assed plotlines largely stemmed from a lack of development. “UnREAL” simply didn’t take the time it needed to make each storytelling choice as meaningful as it could be; in the end, all those short-shrifts bit the meta Lifetime drama in the ass.
Season 3, to its credit, is more focused on the long game. In the first half of the season, the writers patiently advance two predominant issues: Can powerful (or intimidating) women have a rewarding romance without lowering themselves to the patriarchal ideas of how women should behave? Does Quinn, for example, stand a shot at long-term love if she maintains her reputation as a Queen B(ee) ball-buster? And then there’s the question plaguing Rachel: Can you be honest with yourself if you’re lying to everyone else? It’s not hard to imagine how such a query could prove pertinent in the realm of reality television, where manufactured emotion is the status quo, and the audience will often feel torn between trusting Rachel’s choices and worrying if she’s gone off the rails (again).
These are encouraging signs for the seasons, especially given how dedicated the show remains to its beloved couple, Quinn and Rachel. But socially and politically, it’s rather tame. Now is the time to tackle sexism in the workplace, the humanizing effects of reality television, or any number of big issues “UnREAL” is uniquely positioned to skewer, but even within its basic story, there are clumsy mistakes.
How Quinn reacts to the suitress’ quest for true love is largely logical, and then a decision at the end of the otherwise excellent second episode reeks of desperation — and not on Quinn’s part. It’s as if the show’s producers, much like Quinn does on “Everlasting,” got so fed up with the lack of soapy surprises they threw in the most confounding one they could think of. And Rachel’s yurt-living, goat-raising, meditating-in-a-lake lifestyle is easy to make fun of initially, but just when she’s winning us over to her truth-telling ways, the audience is asked to hear the voice of reason from a character who’s too despicable and untrustworthy to ever serve that purpose.
On a smaller scale, there are vexing moments that keep “UnREAL” from its desired prestige perch. At one point, a character is about to reveal a secret to a reporter, and she looks over her shoulder as though someone might hear her. (Don’t worry about the reporter reporting your secret to the freakin’ world.) Chet (Craig Bierko) is shamelessly chasing an Emmy in a meta storyline that feels shamelessly self-serving thus far. Jeremy (Josh Kelly) is back yet again, after assaulting Rachel in Season 2, and he’s looking hotter than ever (which is problematic unto itself). Worse yet, numerous main characters continue to be treated as a means to an end, as they make decisions motivated by melodramatic necessity rather than the rationality they’ve proven to possess.
It would be somewhat forgivable if Rachel, Quinn, Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), and the rest of the group were being turned into puppets with something to say, but “UnREAL” isn’t as sharp as it needs to be to earn such character digressions. Everything to do with “Everlasting” is dull; not even Caitlin Fitzgerald can liven things up. We’ve seen each phase of the reality show before, and none of the
rose elimination ceremonies are dramatic because Fitzgerald’s Serena lacks interiority. She’s just a proxy for Quinn, which is a good idea without the necessary follow-through. (Serena can be like Quinn without being so ordinary.) After Episode 2, she’s basically in one of two modes: whining about what she has to do on the show, or all-too-giddy about one of the guys she just met (who will obviously soon disappoint her).
The men are equally one-dimensional, so one of the juiciest aspects of the show — the show within the show — is rendered rather lifeless by the midway point of Season 3. Quinn and Rachel’s arcs are stronger, and that second episode really shows what “UnREAL” is capable of with this promising “suitress” set-up, but it’s still a long way from its addictive and enlightening former self. Given its impeccable start, this is a series we’ll always be rooting for, and Season 3 could very well round the corner to a strong finish. After five episodes, you’ll still want more, no matter how much you trust what’s next.
But with a reality TV star in the White House, #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements in full swing, and the knowledge of what this show used to be, the lack of urgency in Season 3 is annoying. The world is alight with the very issues Season 1 started tackling. “UnREAL” should be scorching the earth, whether it’s directly referencing topical issues or not. It should feel dangerous, as if a bomb could go off at any moment. But even with all these fires, it still can’t find a spark.
“UnREAL” Season 3 premieres Monday, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.