By the time Rachel calls action on Season 2 of UnReal’s fictional dating show Everlasting, she’s already found her villain, set the groundwork for a pair of nemeses and made the new girl in production cry and vomit in a matter of seconds. The diabolical (and this time, racially motivated) ratings push has begun. Almost impossibly, Rachel has become more of a savage on set, with better control of the scenes around her, though we know that’s only half the story.
The manipulative events commenced in Monday night’s premiere with a coke-filled Vegas party, where Quinn tries to sell network executives on the idea of the next suitor: famous pro quarterback Darius Hill, a (whoa) black dude. The network guy’s response at the party: “You just made my dick hard.” Little fuss is made about Darius’ status as the first black QB in his team’s history. Rather, his main superpower and leverage is simply that he’s black, and therefore an innate source of television scandal, particularly with the proper mix of female contestants. “He’s not that black. He’s ‘football black,’” Quinn tells the skeptical network prez over the phone.
UnReal’s first season effectively exposed the psyches and exploitative forces behind reality TV—particularly on dating shows. Season 2 widens the frame through the perspective of race. It’s a contextualization that would be touchy for a lesser show, but not here. UnReal magnifies the beasts reality TV creates while aware that it’s using race as a convenient meta ploy, too. As Rachel and Quinn go around screaming about how great it is to have a black guy as their bachelor, you imagine that’s how Lifetime felt about this season of UnReal. You also imagine that’s how it’d go down if real-life The Bachelor dared to finally cast a black lead.
Expanding on the theme of Season 1—what networks stoop to for ratings and for us—the racial framing gives UnReal a chance to dive deeply and offensively into stereotypes. When Quinn catches the network president up on the events, she reasons, “The more white pussy the better. Am I right, Gary?” True, as Quinn says, what’s the point of “another small-dicked white boy from Missouri”? She’s a master at excruciatingly on-the-point statements. The roles of the villain, the “wifey” and so on are determined based on how they’ll interact with the black guy, including a chick with links to Bin Laden, an “angry black woman,” per Quinn, a white supremacist and a black debutante (there’s your nemeses).
UnReal’s draw is ultimately about motives—what TV subjects resort to for publicity and what type of person can be molded into a pawn for controversy. So the incentive for Darius is to cancel out previous bad press. (Namely, he called a journalist a bitch on video, but said it like, “Bitch, please,” which is a black thing, which complicates the issue.) Darius talks about preserving the clean image his mom instilled and says he feels like “a caged lion.” Like the Brit suitor, maybe even more so because of his parental and societal expectations, it seems like Darius will seize this opportunity to be both a token and a willing player.
Rachel’s real power as a producer is to disarm and appear genuine for everyone’s best interests. We see and feel it in the limo ride when she convinces Darius that doing the show is worth it, and again when she persuades the “blactivist” Ruby to leave school and join Everlasting. As the new showrunner, Rachel is imbued with—high off—a greater sense of greed and responsibility, which moves the boundary of morality and insensitivity further away. There’s a hint of how much she’ll cross the line in the opening scene which involves Rachel having sex with Darius’ manager Romeo in Vegas. As always, she’s focused in the middle of it: “It was me,” she says. “The first black suitor! We’re gonna make history!”
Then again, there’s always a recurring ounce of regret that makes Rachel a character worth our emotional investment. Money and TV credibility may not be enough to make her happy, even as she’s perfectly fit to fill Quinn’s maniacal shoes. Rachel tries to coach the naive new producer Madison by feeding her questions on set to help dramatize events, and it’s clear she’s inherited more of Quinn’s ruthlessness than we expected. “We don’t solve problems,” Rachel tells Madison. “We create them and then we point cameras at them.” Quinn is still there advising Rachel to delegate and, “Get in the idiot’s ear and tell her what to do.”
The show’s themes resurface a lot through Madison, the symbol of reality TV innocence. Before we can wonder if she’s cut out for puppeteering, or if she’s way too sympathetic, she shapeshifts into the monster Quinn created in Rachel. After the producers find out Chantal has a dead fiancee, for example, Madison cries. Though squeamish about asking Chantal about her ex, she eventually gets around to it: “Did you kill him?” Rachel does most of the prying by way of Quinn and gives us the line of the night: “I feel like God.” They’re both emotionless as the job requires.
The men in Rachel and Quinn’s lives, meanwhile, are literal shells of their former selves. After Rachel’s affair with the first season suitor was publicly outed on set last season, Jeremy is a dick now who taunts Rachel whenever he has an audience. Chet, having shed “50 pounds of weakness sadness and pussydom” while hunting in Patagonia with “my tribe,” wants to regain control of the show he created. Both dudes are the epitome of threatened masculinity and will be major foils. Luckily, Rachel, with the power she has, can effect some type of change, one of which is to fire the guy who requested a “kill list” of all the show’s fuckable ousted contestants. “It turns out being a sexist man baby on my show has consequences,” Rachel tells him, probably knowing the same repercussions will come back around.
Image via Lifetime