“War” is an excellent introduction to UnREAL, and one that sets in motion a great deal to explore throughout season two.
UnREALAirtime: Mondays, 10pm
Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko, Genevieve Buechner, B.J. Britt, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Josh Kelly, Amy Hill
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 1 - "War"
Air date: 2016-06-06
Rachel: We don't solve problems, okay. We create them. And then we point cameras at them.
Craig: May the best man win.
Quinn: She usually does.
The welcome return of Lifetime's UnREAL appears to be headed for an especially timely season. The show about a show, UnREAL focuses on the behind the scenes work that goes into making a reality show: Everlasting, a series in the vein of The Bachelor. It's a premise that could very easily devolve into camp; instead, it smartly focuses on the women who run the show, while also offering insight into the participants of the reality series.
Last season ended on Rachel's (Shiri Appleby) renewed commitment to Everlasting, following Quinn’s (Constance Zimmer) promise to make her the showrunner. The fact that Quinn had also just sabotaged Rachel's secret relationship with that season's Everlasting suitor, Adam (Freddie Stroma), further complicated an already complex relationship between the two women. They share a bond that can often be as destructive and toxic as it can be supportive and caring, and this first episode of the second season, "War", highlights that complexity beautifully.
After Quinn's ousting of Chet (Craig Bierko) at the end of last season, she finally has the full over Everlasting control she's been after for years, along with a deal to create her own show with Rachel; the real reason Rachel has stayed on, even though her time working on Everlasting had previously led to a breakdown. In many ways, the drama behind the scenes is as intense as the one in front of the cameras, not the least of which often arises from the men who run the network.
Much of the initial tension at the beginning of "War" comes from Quinn and Rachel's choice of Darius Hill (B. J. Britt) as the new suitor. He's the show's first black suitor, and much of the maneuvering behind the scenes in casting the women comes from their attempts to cast based on potential racial bias for maximum conflict. That Darius is also attempting to rehabilitate his star football quarterback image after saying, "Bitch, please" to a white female reporter on live television also plays into Quinn and Rachel's plans to stir up controversy in the house.
What’s most intriguing about this season is the way that it’s setting things up for race and gender to intersect. Darius' role as the first black suitor will undoubtedly be exploited by Everlasting to create television drama. That's a given. In turn, they cast, among others, a white supremacist and a black activist, as they’re meant to not only create conflict as potential romantic interests for Darius, but also when interacting amongst themselves. In so overtly highlighting race, UnREAL, and by extension Everlasting, create the potential for a nuanced exploration, particularly in its intersection with gender, feminism, and masculinity.
Apart from the focus on race, UnREAL appears poised to tackle the men’s rights movement in Chet's return. After a lifestyle retreat in the woods, he returns filled with a new philosophy that revolves around traditional roles for men and women, and he's ready to take back control of the show ("We have created a generation of wimps and bitches. We got a whole audience who's waiting for us to show them the natural order of things."). The war for control will clearly play a large part throughout the season, especially as Chet initially gains the upper hand.
Quinn and Rachel's unapologetic approach to getting ratings is sometimes difficult to watch, yet they remain likable and always engaging. Appleby has a natural charm that works perfectly for Rachel’s savvy manipulations. Rachel effortlessly connects with people in a way that makes them believe she’s on their side, when really she’s ultimately serving the needs of the show, most often at the expense of the very same people. In contrast, Quinn's naked ambition and cutthroat approach to the show have served her well, yet she's had to fight for every accomplishment she's earned. Zimmer encapsulates Quinn's brashness and take-no-prisoners approach wonderfully, while also imbuing her with a strong sense of loyalty.
In addition, this season newly-minted producer Madison (Genevieve Buechner) is clearly on her way to following in Rachel's footsteps, while Rachel plays the Quinn role for her. It’s equally disturbing and exhilarating to see the level of plotting at play in creating a show like Everlasting, but it's these women that make the process so compelling, especially because Rachel, Quinn, and now Madison are the ones in control. Women manipulating other women for the entertainment of an audience primarily made up of women, is a statement in itself, and UnREAL delves into the implications of that dynamic unreservedly. "War" is an excellent introduction to the season, and one that sets in motion a great deal to further explore throughout the season.