Part of the rapturous critical response to UnREAL was based on the perception that the show is unlike anything else on Lifetime, but that’s not exactly true. UnREAL actually bears a resemblance to another long-running Lifetime show, albeit one with a much worse reputation. That show is Dance Moms, the augmented reality series about tween dancers, their high-strung stage moms, and the zaftig taskmaster who brings them to tears. At first blush, the two shows couldn’t be more different, but they’ve both run into the same narrative conundrum, one in which the show’s greatest asset—the ever-escalating outrageousness—is also its greatest weakness.
Dance Moms isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally gravitate to, but my ex-boyfriend was really into it at the time, and before long I was sucked into the politics and psychological warfare within the Abby Lee Dance Company. The show outlasted my relationship, but I kept watching Dance Moms of my own accord until it just became too unpleasant, too over the top, and too abusive. To keep their audiences hooked, reality shows cross lines, then draw new ones and cross those, and so on. When Dance Moms started, the main conflicts were between Abby Lee Miller and the demanding mothers of the girls she was instructing. But raising the stakes meant pulling the children further into the drama. The criticism became sharper and meaner until it resembled Mr. G’s psychological assessments in Summer Heights High. I eventually had to ask myself if I wanted to watch young girls be castigated week after week, and the answer was no.
Like Dance Moms, UnREAL is about women for whom social boundaries and standards of common decency are hurdles that would preclude absolute success. Quinn and Rachel (and, increasingly, Madison) will go to any lengths to make Everlasting as salacious and irresistible as possible, and there’s no price too steep for excellence, especially since the contestants always pick up the tab. That’s a solid story if told with some level of patience and restraint, but UnREAL strives to be as salacious and irresistible as the show within the show, so Mary was hurling herself off the roof of the mansion by episode six. Neither Quinn nor Rachel has expressed much remorse over what happened to Mary, and other than the occasional reference to “suicide ratings,” it’s as if she never existed.
Mary’s suicide seemed like a creative misstep at the time, and season two has borne out why. If an actual on-camera suicide can’t derail Everlasting, or at least give pause to the people who make and broadcast it, nothing can. As a result, UnREAL continues to shoot itself in the foot this season by repeatedly asking the question “How far will they go?” The answer is always the same: As far as possible, and probably beyond the point where it stops being naughty fun for the audience. Any lingering doubts about whether Quinn and Rachel still retained a shred of empathy were answered by “Treason,” when neither minded paralyzing Darius if it would yield their desired result. “Infiltration,” therefore, overplays its hand by building to another outrageous stunt by the producers that accomplishes nothing except making the characters more unpleasant. Quinn is awful for tracking down Ruby’s father in order to humiliate them both on national television, but she’s not awful in an novel way, or in a way that communicates anything new about the character. It’s just a stunt, the very same kind of stunt to which UnREAL seems to think it’s superior.
The most troubling issue with “Infiltration” is how it demonstrates the utter lack of consequences in the world of UnREAL. Thanks to the dogged efforts of Quinn and Madison, Ruby’s dad barges in on her having sex with a pro football player as cameras capture their entire confrontation. Ruby stands firm about staying on the show, confessing that she’s developed real feelings for Darius and continuing to spout nonsense about “a larger platform for our message,” and her father tells her how ashamed he is of her. It’s a mortifying, horrible moment for everyone not on the payroll. Does Ruby later confront anyone about how unbelievable a violation it was? No, she does not. Darius doesn’t either. Nor does their subsequent conversation contain any acknowledgment of the humiliation they were just subjected to. Instead, it’s about whether Darius is doing enough to help the black community and whether or not he can become a man Ruby would be proud to call her beau.
It’s one thing for UnREAL to present a reality in which concepts such as network standards, audience revolts, and advertiser defections don’t exist. (I find it interesting that no one ever talks about Twitter, seeing as Everlasting seems expressly designed for live tweeting.) It’s another thing for UnREAL to become a world in which actions don’t have reactions and choices don’t have consequences. Season two is all about who is running the show at UnREAL, a question that remains unresolved as Quinn awaits her tickets for the Impact Awards, not realizing they’ve already gone to Coleman. But it’s also kind of irrelevant because everyone does whatever they want to without consequence. If, for example, seeing what was done to Ruby made the other contestants less receptive to Quinn, thereby reducing her efficacy, there would be real stakes. Would there be a reward relative to the risk, or would Quinn’s lack of boundaries prove her undoing? Because these dynamics don’t exist, UnREAL has become an endurance test to see how much human cruelty the audience can stomach.
Coleman’s arrival hasn’t done much to shake up the show, save for getting Jeremy demoted, and the status quo at Everlasting remains curiously undisturbed. The arrival of Ioan Gruffudd as billionaire TV dilettante John Booth apparently won’t help much, since he’s an Everlasting superfan and lights up at the opportunity to visit the set and interact with Beth Ann, of all people. He’s not horrified by Quinn’s behavior, he’s impressed by it, and begins holding himself out as Quinn’s first post-Chet love interest. Shopping for coffins at Costco isn’t exactly a TV-perfect fantasy date, but it’ll have to do. The more things change at Everlasting, the more they stay the same.
That said, there will certainly be lasting ramifications for Rachel’s relationship with Jeremy following a genuinely ugly physical confrontation between them. I can’t imagine who thought putting Chet and Jeremy in the same plot was a good idea, since it mainly highlighted how useless both characters are. But Jeremy becomes suddenly relevant again after being forced to admit that he’s still in love with Rachel, then hitting her in a fit of drunken rage. In a show full of revolting scenes, this is one of the most revolting by far, and I’m not entirely sure what purpose it serves other than making UnREAL that much darker. But at least Jeremy is a character who might have to account for his actions. It’s a start.
- A fond farewell to Ruby and Dominique, who had their candles snuffed in a classic act of suitor defiance.
- Part of me hated to see Ruby be eliminated, but part of me was happy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a black character be so clearly written with no input from an actual black person.
- Hot Rachel’s fling with Jeremy certainly came to light more quickly than I anticipated.
- Thanks to the lovely Gwen Ihnat for letting me drop in on this episode.