Last year, one of the best new shows premiered on Lifetime. Yes, you read that right — Lifetime. “UnREAL” surprised me when it came out of the gate last year, bringing a show that felt distinct from the soapy dramas that came before it. Not only did the show have remarkable performances from its two leading ladies, it brought a fascinating cynical bite to its take on the reality television genre. It was as bitterly funny as it was tragic, as it brought the underbelly of the reality industry to life. This season, the show dives even further into its cynical heart, with brilliant shifts in characterizations and overall arcs that could drive a season even better than its first.

“UnREAL” follows what happens behind-the-scenes of the “Bachelor”-esque reality show, “Everlasting.” After being promised the job of showrunner in the season one finale, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, “Life Unexpected”) returns to the set with the intention of taking over the show from Quinn King (Constance Zimmer, “House of Cards”). They even bring in a African American suitor (making history in the show’s timeline and also before the real ABC reality hit did the same thing) with the intention of boosting the show’s ratings. However, wrenches are thrown into the plan when Chet (Craig Bierko, “Boston Legal”) returns from a trip to retake the show and implement his ideas for a male-skewing version of the “romantic” reality series.

By positioning Chet as an antagonist to Quinn and Rachel, “UnREAL” puts him in a different role from the first season. It’s representative of a group of changing characterizations among the show’s male characters in its second season. By placing Chet as an adversary, it gives him something much more interesting to do than what he had in the first season. He now has a clearly defined role on the show, and it makes him a much more compelling presence. Chet also brings Jeremy (Josh Kelly, “One Life to Live”) into the mix, giving him something to do besides play a romantic interest for Rachel.

A lot of the success of “UnREAL” is because of the committed performances, especially from Appleby and Zimmer. The two play off of each other extraordinarily well and have a chemistry that shines in their scenes together. Moments when Quinn is pushing Rachel away from the showrunner role and the two are backstabbing one-another don’t work without the groundwork the two of them have built. Appleby especially deserves credit for bringing the nuances of Rachel to life, as she struggles with a mental illness that affects her ability to work on the show. She brings the character’s fight to life and justifies how Rachel continues to work in an industry which tears her apart — it’s the only thing she knows how to do well.

Within the story of “UnREAL” is a stark look at reality television production. It’s biting and cynical in how it shows its producers tear contestants and each other up in order to get what they want for the screen. This is best addressed by a scene in the premiere where Madison (Genevieve Buechner, “The 100”), a former assistant who is new to a production role, is trying to get a contestant on the show to talk about how her fiance died in a car accident she caused. Rachel is talking in her ear, trying to get her to ask the question while Madison and the contestant are openly weeping. Rachel is pushing both Madison and the contestant past their breaking points for the sake of the show. It’s a tough scene, but nothing else in the first two episodes showcases the nature of a production role better than that one.

Another question the show raises during the first two episodes of the new season involves the race of the suitor. This year, Rachel and Quinn chose Darius Beck (B.J. Britt, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), a professional quarterback, to be the man for their girls to pine after. During the opening scene, the producers toast to how they’re making history, as neither “Everlasting” (nor “The Bachelor”) have ever had an African American suitor. The drama uses this to explore questions of race, as the producers bring in both a Confederate-bikini-wearing contestant and a Black Lives Matter activist to be on their show. This seems to be one of the focal points of the season and one that makes it deeper than many other television soaps.

It’s amazing to me how much “UnREAL” has surprised me during its run so far. The drama raises important questions while taking a stark and honest look at the reality genre. While very few are watching right now, I hope people start catching on to how fantastic this show is. 

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