Photo: Bettina Strauss (Lifetime)

There was a dark time when I was much younger when the Rules book was popular. I had a neighbor who thought it was the best book ever and slid me a copy under my door (it was that thin). I skimmed through it, decided I wans’t willing to do any of the fakey things the book suggested, like “Be a Creature Unlike Any Other” or “Don’t Talk Too Much” (fat chance), and slid it back under her door. I much preferred the Rules send-up in Melissa Bank’s short story, “The Girl’s Guide To Hunting And Fishing.”

I (fortunately) haven’t thought of that book in years, at least until tonight’s episode of UnREAL. Watching Serena change herself to attract the guys after beating them all at poker was a bit skin-crawling, but I sadly have no doubt that it would work in real life. Again, when I was out at bars with single people more, I remember girls like Madison very well, except the constant refrain I remember went something like this: “You’re bad. You’re so bad. You’re terrrrrible.” I saw it work on wannabe bad boys like an actual charm.

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So I’m both disappointed and not that surprised to find that years layer, these feminine wiles tricks still come into play in 2018. Serena is a strong, successful businessperson, but when she acts like herself, demolishing all the men at poker, they can’t get away from her fast enough. Her look around at the empty poker table is depressing; even Graham gets that she blew it. She played her best, just like like she does in business, which makes her successful. Except she finds that those same traits seem to repel the very men she’s trying to attract.

I’m with Rachel here: That’s bullshit. Why wouldn’t the right guy appreciate Serena for the badass she so clearly is? For Serena to take Chet and Madison’s advice and attract a husband in this manner, playing someone who’s not herself, is disingenuous. Even if it wins her a life partner, he won’t be falling in love with the real her. Only Rachel and Owen, the firefighter, seem to understand that.

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Yet, it seems nauseatingly familiar how easily the men fall all over Serena when she plays dumb at craps. Her effectiveness at acting like a blonde pod person is downright disturbing, jumping up and down and playing dumb. The effect is so powerful, it manages to unravel both Rachel and Quinn, albeit in different ways.

Watching the show that she wants (Serena as feminist powerhouse) dissolve before her very eyes, Rachel becomes the evil showrunner again. It’s a testament to the continued good work of Shiri Appleby that we can see the demonic light in Rachel’s eyes as she “produces” the Russian ballet guy into taking on Billy the racecar driver, after failing with more honorable Owen. I’m a little less certain as to why she decides to almost toss her celibacy vow, though: Was Madison’s description of an “old and lonely” too scary? Did she want to make sure that she had the power to not end up like Serena and Quinn? Once Rachel puts her mind to it, though, with August the man bun that matches her own hair, her wiles are different than Serena’s. Possibly a bit more sincere, but just as effective: a lock of hair over the ear, a shared cigarette, an eye contact moment that goes on for just a second too long. Rachel knows what she’s doing and unlike Serena, her real charms are apparently irresistible. But she changes her mind at the last minute, leaving that open spot in August’s hammock available for…

Quinn’s destruction this episode is, for once, much harder to take than Rachel’s. We’re used to seeing Quinn be hard as nails in any situation, and yet she unspools almost completely after a run-in with Chet’s new girlfriend Crystal (“You’re back. Isn’t it a school night?”), and the reveal that he has revealed major life events to Crystal that he never did to her in all the years they were together. Especially since what Madison and Rachel both reveal about Quinn turns out to be true: She did want a husband and family, same as Serena, and now it looks like she’ll never actually get there.

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Not sure how I feel about this revelation turning Quinn into an overnight alcoholic, though. Or the smile on her face at the end of the episode as she has sex with August on her desk, simultaneously screwing over Rachel and, just like Rachel herself, offering a necessary affirmation of her own desirability. August tells her she’s beautiful, though, and she doesn’t want to hear it, focusing on the escape from this unreal reality she can’t get out of.

There are obviously women (and men) out there who don’t need or want a partner. Which is what gives me pause over this episode of UnREAL, as fascinating a social experiment as I found it. Serena ends the episode by playing Chet with the very words he gave her at the beginning of the episode, concluding, “Men are idiots.” But if so, why does she want one so badly? She’s a smart person, so why does she really think finding a husband on this 100 percent artificial televised situation could ever work?

We know Quinn is still smarting over the years she lost to Chet and the disastrous storyline with John Booth last season. But we would hope that she would be strong enough to withstand a minor threat like Crystal and Serena’s transformation onscreen. That she doesn’t, just like the effectiveness of Serena’s Rules-like flirting, is not exactly unexpected—but it’s still disappointing.

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Stray observations

  • Still two dead people, show! I’not going to forget about it, even if you are.
  • Kind of sorry I don’t watch the actual Bachelor, because everyone on Twitter kept saying that tonight’s finale was like an UnREAL episode.
  • Thank god the shrink called Rachel out on her “total honesty” bullshit. Just because something is her opinion doesn’t mean it’s the absolute truth.
  • Quinn on Serena: “She’s on something, right?”
  • Classic Quinn: “I hate this show.”
  • “Where is Rachel, why isn’t she here producing her guys?” “Because she’s having her breakdown early this season?”
  • Pickup line guaranteed to work on Rachel: “You have a Russian soul.”
  • Guessing they couldn’t or didn’t want to pay for the rights to any actual karaoke songs, which is too bad.
  • The Russian ballerina: “We own your country now, by the way.” Quinn: “I mean, he’s right, but I can totally cut that.”
  • I miss when they used to throw their phones in the water.
  • The tire gauge bit was hilarious.

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