Unreal

Actor Shiri Appleby, left, executive producer Carol Barbee and co-creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro pose with the award for the television show "Unreal" at the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in New York.

Associated Press

"Casualty" is one of "Unreal's" was one of the show's most frustrating episodes, not the least because it's dealing with territory that the show likely would have nailed last year. Season 2 has hit the sophomore slump, with the writers losing track of the show-within-a-show and the characters' motivations (especially the supporting players) while keeping the drama artificially heightened in every episode. Six episodes in, there's no real stakes because most of the characters are chess pieces being pushed around — we either don't know them or their characters have been inconsistent all season. 

Rachel (Shiri Appleby, who also directed this episode) has been the only character it's been easy to get a handle on this year, and even then, she's dealing with the aftermath of one of the most misjudged moments in the show's short history — Jeremy's assault of Rachel. The episode opens with Rachel looking bleary-eyed, her chin and lips quivering as she lies on the floor in a pile of dresses. Chet (Craig Bierko), ever-unhelpful, enters to try to play dad, telling Rachel that she can't go to the police. "This has to stay in the family," Chet says, his hand on her shoulder (how we reconcile this with the MRA version of Chet the season began with is anyone's guess — there's been little time for him to reckon with his mistakes). There's an effective sequence with a woozy handheld shot in which Rachel documents the bruises Jeremy left on her arm and face before covering them up with make-up, but there's still something uncomfortably deterministic about the way Jeremy's assault has been used as a quick way to send Rachel into a depressive episode and the set of "Everlasting" into self-preservation mode. I see what they're trying to do, showing how women might decide to stay silent rather than come out about physical abuse. I just don't think they handle it very skillfully.

Or, I should note, the writers don't handle it well. Appleby does some of her best work as an actress in "Casualty," bouncing back and forth between Rachel's depressive funk and meltdown at Darius (which convinces him to go to Alabama on a hometown date with Beth Ann, something he initially rejects with "I'm not trying to get lynched") to her manic episode when the initially boring day with Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil) and her less-racist-than-expected family ("Where's the drunk uncle? Where's the KKK?"  asks Rachel) turns into a potential ratings bonanza when Beth Ann learns that she's pregnant. Initially in a funk, worried that she's going to end up with nothing after pushing so hard to get them there, Rachel hugs Beth Ann close, smiling and telling her that of course Darius (B.J. Britt) will help her raise a son that isn't his, don't be silly. She's using Beth Ann, of course, and her bouncing-off-the-walls demeanor worries boyfriend/boss Coleman (Michael Rady), especially after he belatedly learns of Rachel's assault.

Back at the mansion, the best that can be said is that a lot of stuff is happening. Quinn's (Constance Zimmer) relationship with John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd) is moving along quickly, with him accompanying her to her father's funeral ("weirdest first date ever," she admits to Chet) and her asking him to leave for a bit when she learns about Rachel's assault. We're asked to invest a lot in this relationship or believe that Quinn has a lot invested...but we met Booth literally last episode, and "Everlasting" therapist Dr. Wagerstein (Amy Hill) telling Quinn that she's lonely and "he may be your last chance" feels false. I have less trouble buying Quinn going hyper-aggressive in her confrontation with Jeremy as she grabs his testicles and threatens to castrate him if he touches Rachel again, but there's very little time to register the shift between how she acted towards Rachel for the majority of the season and how she's acting now. There's always been a difficult mother-daughter/exploiter-exploited relationship between the two, but the show usually handles those transitions well. Here, it's instantaneous, which is believable given the circumstances but less than dramatically satisfying.

Rachel's moving very quickly, speaking at a rapid-fire pace and walking around the Alabama home trying to get Beth Ann's ex-con ex-boyfriend to come to her on-camera confession to her family and Darius that she's pregnant. Coleman tells her that he has reservations about outing a pregnant woman in front of her family, and tells Rachel that she's "not acting like [herself]." Coleman means well, but he doesn't know Rachel as well as he thinks, nor does he realize that this is not the tone nor the thing you want to say to someone dealing with mental illness. Rachel dismisses it with a laugh, but as she runs her fingers through her hair and the smile fades, she shifts from mania to anger, going through a laundry list of the terrible things they've done for the show (isolated a woman, hired a fake mother to send someone off the deep end, given Darius an epidural that could do serious damage to him) and demanding that they blow this up.

Last season, one of the most moving moments came as Rachel went to the sound with Faith (Breeda Wool), a closeted lesbian from a conservative Christian southern town who Rachel eventually protected from being outed on TV. We see a very different Rachel organizing Beth Ann's destruction in this episode, jumping into Coleman's arms and making out with him (he's reluctant) as Beth Ann falls apart in front of her terrifying ex and Darius recoils at her saying that he loves him. It's a potentially powerful moment to show how far Rachel has fallen, but that comparison isn't drawn, and though Musil gives an appealing, sympathetic performance as Beth Ann, the character herself never really got enough time to outgrow the well-meaning sort of racist Southern girl stereotype she was introduced as. There's little of the complexity or discovery that came with Faith's arc — we're just seeing a pawn being moved around the chessboard. Her being asked to leave the show doesn't hit, either, even as both Musil and Britt have a few sensitive moments — her admitting that it's not Darius' baby and she's sorry for briefly suggesting it might have been, him saying he'll help with the baby's college fund anyway. They're nice moments, but they feel too engineered, ultimately a way to temporarily pull Darius and Rachel's uneasy partnership apart.

Again, I think "Casualty's" saving grace is Appleby, who gets a pair of very good scenes at the episode's end. In the first, Chet, Quinn and Coleman all argue about whether or not Rachel should go to the police, with Coleman advocating on her behalf before Rachel decides to stick with Quinn and Chet. Appleby plays the scene like she's really having a tough time deciding what she's going to do before she says, in an exhausted tone, that she wants to drop it, perhaps realizing that it's going to be a longer and harder road if she goes to the cops. In the second, she confronts Coleman with Quinn's suggestion that he's her version of Chet, with Coleman assuring her, "I see who you are" and "I'm taking you out of here at the end of the season whether Quinn likes it or not." Coleman seems well-meaning (though I'm still considering the possibility that he's as manipulative as Quinn thinks), but he's also a bit paternalistic, deciding what's best for Rachel instead of trusting her. In the episode's final scenes, he goes down on Rachel, her face in a close-up that parallels the opening, but now her face is in a mixture of ecstasy and...something that's a little harder to place, as if she's still somewhat uneasy about this relationship.

Quinn knows it, and that's why she's called in Rachel's other beau from last season: Adam (Freddie Stroma), who arrives in a limo with a smile and a "here we go again." I can't help but have a less optimistic version of that in my head as "Unreal" promises to play with another version of the same love triangle we had last season and that we have too many of this season. Aside from Rachel/Coleman/Adam, there's Quinn/Booth/Chet, Jeremy/Yael/Rachel, and Tiffany/Darius/Romeo (which seems to be cleared up after she confesses her initial fling to Darius). There's a lot of stuff happening, but very little of it seems related to the show-within-a-show, with most of the contestants forgotten or undeveloped (Jameson, the police officer who's still on the show, has no personality at all as far as I can tell) and the manipulation of the contestants — the reason the show worked last season — feeling arbitrary and decided on an episode-by-episode basis. "Here we go again" feels less like a promise of an unforgettable episode and more like a threat that we're going to get another hour that sacrifices consistency and storytelling for short-lived shock and surprise. I'm getting more uneasy about this season by the minute.

Stray thoughts:

-The other contestants start drinking and give self-serving reasons for why they think Darius picked Beth Ann instead of them (the real reason is "because Rachel told him to"). Not much comes from it, with the biggest revelation — that Tiffany hooked up with Romeo — being dismissed by the end when Chet helps her in exchange for an introduction to her NFL insider father.

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-Better than that scene is a montage in which the girls try to convince Darius to go on a date with them, many of them doing a less than spectacular job. Note: Yael does not know what "ironic" means.

-There's some good barbs tonight from Jay (who refers to Rachel's Alabama trip as a "cracker town s---show") and from Quinn, who says of Jeremy that she's going to "rip off his balls, deep-fry them and force him to eat them." I think the series has oversimplified Quinn this season, but Zimmer's still killing it.

-Exhibit B on "Zimmer's still killing it": Her voice breaking slightly and her eyes welling up as she gets off the phone with Booth. I don't really buy the relationship taking hold this fast (you could take into account her father's death, but the show botched that, too) or Dr. Wagerstein getting to her, but Zimmer plays it beautifully.

-Ruby is still the best new character this season, and the show is worse for having lost her last week. #BringRubyBack

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