Last summer’s hit drama UnReal returns for its second season tonight (Lifetime, 10 p.m.), and goes where the show it satirizes, The Bachelor, has been too terrified or cowardly to go yet: casting a black bachelor. Yes, the fictional reality dating competition series at the center of UnReal, “Everlasting,” has a non-white star, Darius Beck, played by B.J. Britt.
It’s worth noting that an actual dating reality series, WE tv’s Match Made in Heaven, which debuted last year, had an African-American star, former NFL player Stevie Baggs.
But UnReal’s move will undoubtedly give it more to satirize, beyond the sexism and misogyny present in the format, the production, and Hollywood.
Of course, it’s not too challenging to satirize The Bachelor and its creator Mike Fleiss, who in real life referred to women not just as objects but as food he eats when explaining his decision to cast a non-white woman and then the reversal of that decision.
Specifically, Mike Fleiss wrote: “After 5 years of BBQ chicken as our Night One dinner, I’m thinking of mixing things up this year. Maybe a little Thai food… Yum!” and then: “I chickened out and went with BBQ chicken. If it ain’t broke…”.
So yes, UnReal creators and writers Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro have a lot of material to work with this season—and next, because Lifetime already renewed UnReal for a third season.
From the moment I screened the first episode early last spring, I was hooked, attracted in part to the expose of certain reality television practices that people who used to work on the show said were basically a documentary.
For everything it got right, especially about early seasons of The Bachelor, it also did the absurd, compressing time so much that the show was essentially being filmed, edited, and airing in real time.
But the drama it mined from those practices, especially in the first part of its season, made me wonder if its appeal had anything to do with the general dislike of reality television. But I don’t think so, because the show offered a lot:
- It’s well-written and well-produced, and delivered something that was high above any expectations we had for a Lifetime series.
- Its two leads—Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmerare—are women, and their characters are complex, and not just because their behavior seems sometimes villainous and sometimes sympathetic. That’s all too rare, perhaps even otherwise nonexistent, for television.
- The plots may have been grounded in reality, but they were over-the-top soap opera fun, and it was easy to watch and be absorbed by.
- It satirized reality TV, the genre the scripted world loves to crap on.
If anything, UnReal’s criticism of reality television is like a layer of frosting in a wonderful cake: it absolutely adds to the whole, but it’s not the only thing to love. Hopefully season two will add even more to its disturbing but delectable dessert drama.
What critics are saying about UnReal season two
A selection of early reviews of season two, which are based on the two episode Lifetime made available to TV critics:
- Mo Ryan, Variety: “the show’s willingness to simultaneously plummet into dark places, plunge ahead with social commentary and provide pitch-dark satire that makes watching it such an exciting experience. Reality producers know you don’t want to be bored, and ‘UnReal’ follows that mandate.”
- Willa Paskin, Slate: Season two “slams our moment’s hottest topics into a blender and hits frappe. The resulting concoction, made of election dynamics, confederate flags, Black Lives Matter, football, diversity, gender norms, voyeurism, narcissism, hedonism, nihilism, cruelty, manipulation, and mental illness is like a juice fast created by a demon: It looks great, tastes better, and tears you apart from the inside, leaving you gutted—which is a brutal kind of cleansed.”
- Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair: “For a moment there, it looks like UnREAL may be falling victim to the same second-season overcompensating that, say, sent the Tailies disastrously crashing down onto Lost’s mystery island. But soon enough, the show’s spell kicks in and that worry fades…”
- Jen Chaney, Vulture: “While UnREAL may be delving into the racial fray this season, it’s still at its most compelling when it depicts the minefield that comes with being a woman in such an aggressively misogynistic workplace.”
- Dan Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter: “Through two episodes, UnREAL has maintained its commitment to painful emotional reality, plus dialogue so scathing and raunchy I’m sometimes impressed it’s able to fly on basic cable. Appleby and Zimmer continue to deliver strong and funny lead performances playing two of TV’s most outspoken and prickly characters.”