Fans of “UnREAL” received quite the surprise invitation last week: not just one last trip to the “Everlasting” mansion — only three months after the Emmy-nominated drama ended its third season — but a new address. Instead airing weekly on Lifetime, the entire season is now streaming on Hulu.
With the release, “UnREAL’s” creators close the book on a fond memory. Not only did the series prove to be a crucial stepping stone in Lifetime’s quest to redefine its brand and invest in more challenging, quality fare, but when it originally premiered in June 2015, the pilot of “UnREAL” stood out for its freshness; it wasn’t content to introduce “women behaving badly” as its characters’ defining element, and instead crafted a whole tableau of complicated women rich with flaws and vulnerabilities.
It also did so against one of the more shallow backdrops you could imagine — a downright eerie parody of dating shows like “The Bachelor” — which lead to a fascinating contrast in concepts and a near-perfect first season of television. The biggest issue was that in subsequent seasons, it never managed to keep pushing that central conceit forward.
“UnREAL” took big swings in terms of its subject matter — pushing into race issues with Season 2 by casting a black Suitor, and then doubling-down on its engagement with gender by casting a female Suitress in Season 3 who upended some of the reality show’s basic biases. But Season 2 tried to do too much and wiped out as a result; Season 3 showed some signs of recovery but got bogged down by its more soapy qualities.
Season 4 doesn’t make any effort to advance the conversation in terms of new issues, instead focusing on the “All-Stars” for a season very much inspired (in true “UnReal” fashion) by the “Bachelor’s” more disreputable sibling, “Bachelors in Paradise.” Things start off nasty from the beginning: Everyone’s favorite “little weirdo” Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is now at the helm of “Everlasting’s” new season, which features former contestants and an equal number of men and women competing to be the final couple. Plus, there are reality show veterans more than aware of how they’ll be manipulated by Rachel and her fellow producers, including newcomer Tommy (François Arnaud) who proves to be Rachel’s match in many ways.
Of course, power couple Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Chet (Craig Bierko) are back to grapple with new network president Fiona (Tracie Thoms, a welcome addition from Season 3) and meddle in Rachel’s plans, sometimes for her own good. Rachel once again remains the center of this show, which might be why things can feel unbalanced, as the viewer tries to keep up with her constantly changing goals and moods. Appleby manages to sell it in her performance, and it’s also what can make “UnREAL” such uneasy viewing.
That is, when it’s not glorying in the trashy fun that is reality TV tropes. The most disappointing aspect of “UnREAL’s” All-Stars concept is that more of the previous seasons’ cast don’t return — it’s a lot to expect, of course, given the caliber of actors who have appeared (many of whom are now series regulars on other shows), but for only a few to make appearances does make us long for some of the more familiar and appreciated characters — just for example, it would have been fantastic to see Caitlin Fitzgerald as Serena, B.J. Britt as Darius, or Freddie Stroma as Adam.
The flip side, of course, is the choice to introduce characters from seasons prior to the Adam season (or before “UnREAL’s” timeline began), which means introducing new faces with deep histories. That actually helps, given the somewhat truncated length of the season (eight episodes, the show’s shortest run yet); when these new contestants are introduced, it’s not hard to catch up on their backstories thanks to the use of the reality show format.
Much is made of the games and challenges — the artificial trappings of entertainment — but it’s all in service to the underlying darkness of the narrative, with elements such as the memory of a sexual assault from Season 1 revived here and turned into a major lynchpin of the narrative. (It wouldn’t be a season of “UnREAL” without at least one trip to the police station.)
It’s a lot, as the kids might say; a show that wants to eat its cake and also set it on fire. Over the course of its run, “UnREAL” tried to be a whole lot of things: dark comedy, prestige drama, reality satire, soap opera, feminist manifesto. It pulled off some of those aspects a lot better than others, but even that imbalance grew to the point of frustration. It was always fascinating to watch, just to see what might happen next, until it became pretty clear the show had said everything it had to say.
The final moments of “UnREAL” bring with them an over-the-top, operatic feel, one that pushes every strain of believability but, in the grand scheme of things, feels pretty fitting. It’s a farewell that brings with it the satisfaction of slapping your toxic ex in the face, a knowledge that sometimes it’s not just enough for things to end. Sometimes, you just gotta burn it all down.
“UnREAL” Season 4 is streaming now on Hulu.
In this week’s episode of IndieWire’s Very Good Television Podcast, TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and TV Critic Ben Travers debate whether “UnReal’s” surprise release was the most effective strategy. Listen below, and don’t forget to subscribe to Very Good TV Podcast via Soundcloud or iTunes.