I think "Unreal" might have permanently crashed and burned, folks.
It's increasingly difficult to see how the show can come back from a season that's quickly gone from messy to disastrous. It's not impossible — "Friday Night Lights" course-corrected after the infamous "Landry killed someone" debacle that consumed season 2 — but the show has taken all of the wrong lessons from season 1 and decided that it works best when it's being provocative. In truth, season 1 of "Unreal" was at its worst when it went for shock (the suicide episode) and at its best when showing how the sausage was made on reality TV and how messy the relationships and personal lives of people on and behind the camera were. Season 2 has a bit of that, but with no consistency or attention span and a greater sense to prove itself. Last night's episode, "Ambush," began with white text on a black background warning us that the episode contained gun violence and was sympathetic towards recent victims. At that point, I'm half certain my neighbors heard me say "oh no, no no no no no," over and over again.
"Ambush" begins with close-ups of Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Coleman (Michael Rady) in bed together, him nuzzling their neck, a gauzy soft focus turning their time together into bliss. Cue Adam (Freddie Stroma), last year's suitor and Rachel's ex-flame, who arrives in all of his burly British glory with stories of doing charity work in Africa. She's dismissive, shaking her head. "I did not call you back, don't you get it?" He's insistent, and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) wants to incorporate him into the show. Coleman's annoyed that Quinn's undermining him, but he's even angrier when he finds out about Rachel's past relationship and how that flame isn't totally extinguished (she makes out with Adam at one point and orchestrates a time for him to meet her in his office...only to turn it into a way to rebuff Adam when she finds Coleman and decides to start something with him). Even more annoyed is Darius (B.J. Britt), the current suitor who's none too pleased that Rachel's still trying to work him over and that Adam's stealing his limelight. Still, Darius takes Adam's advice to take Chantal (Meagan Tady) on a special Venice date.
Or...so it would seem. The episode's few strong moments come with the ersatz Venice date, which Madison (Genevieve Buechner) orchestrates by mocking up a canoe to look like a gondola, a lake to look like a river, and a date that's on land to look like it's on the water (she did it with only $150, she brags). The best shot comes when the camera, focused on the monitor that shows Darius and Chantal canoodling in the canoe, pulls back to reveal its inauthenticity, a perfect encapsulation of how "Unreal" manufactures whole relationships and romance to sell to the American public for ratings. Pity, then, that Adam literally spells that out in his next argument with Rachel, in which he knocks her claim that she's doing something important by showing the first black suitor.
But then we get the broad comedy that comes with the date, in which Chantal releases the ashes of her dead fiancee to the wind, which blows them into Darius' face and mouth. It's sad to see a character who had such promise turned into a cheap joke and a reminder that we never got to know her beyond her tragic background. Darius has had enough, and he and Romeo (Gentry White) decide to steal the "Everlasting" sports car and go out for a ride with Yael (Monica Barbaro) and a very drunk Tiffany (Kim Matula). Rather than stop them, Rachel and Coleman decide to manufacture a moment, call the police to report a stolen vehicle, and watch as the police go too far with Darius and company. Rachel and Coleman watch from the woods as the cops pull them over, Darius and Romeo are manhandled (already bad news, given Darius' back problems), and, when Rachel rushes to stop it, Romeo is shot in the confusion.
Early this year, I called the school shooting episode of "American Crime," which mixed testimonials of victims' loved ones to bolster the show's themes and the death of a (barely known) character, one of the most staggeringly misguided things I've ever seen on an acclaimed TV show. This surpasses it. In fairness, there's no way showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro could have known the timing would be this close to the shootings of two black men by police officers — this keeps happening, and they're trying to reflect that. But Romeo has been absent for three episodes, and he's barely given anything to do in this one. The direction of the moment calls attention to its own virtuosity in the worst way (a "Blair Witch" style camera drop), and though we don't know yet if Romeo dies, we spend no time at all focusing on how this affects him or Darius and barely any time on Jay's reaction. The show hasn't earned this moment, and it's going beyond what happened with Mary's suicide last season — we're now playing with a hot-button issue with a character who's barely registered, and we're focusing on how it affects Rachel (who spirals and calls her mother, who places her in an institution), Coleman (who, before being removed, says he wants to show the footage on TV, turning him into a craven opportunist) and Quinn (who's concerned for Rachel but wants to get rid of Coleman first). It's exploitative and wrongheaded and awful, and I'm appalled that this storyline was ever given a thumbs up.
My understanding (taken from this great New Yorker profile) is that season 1 had a great deal of creative friction between creators/showrunners Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who has the reality TV experience as a producer on "The Bachelor") and Marti Noxon (who has dramatic TV experience as a producer and writer on shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Mad Men"). Season 2 began with Noxon, but she's been more focused on her other current series, "A Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce." That explains why the first few episodes went relatively smoothly while the last several have been all over the place. "Unreal" still has a showrunner with a lot on her mind about reality television and America as a whole, but the person who was responsible for making those ideas coherent or dramatically effective is absent. In its place is a desperate need for attention and to say something important.
When Quinn learns about what's happened, she has the underreaction of a lifetime: "That is unfortunate." It's impossible for me to believe that Quinn's reaction wouldn't be more extreme (especially after Rachel telling her to "get a life" earlier in the episode practically knocked the wind out of her), or that Coleman would be gross enough to try to exploit a tragedy for ratings based on what we know about him. The show has gone from changing character dynamics on an episode-by-episode basis to not even sticking to character dynamics within a single episode. One could twist themselves into a pretzel pointing out a meta connection of the feeble way Rachel's trying to be progressive on television, but it'd be fruitless. This show is a mess, and I'm not a maid.
-Man, we've really lost track of what's going on in the show-within-a-show, haven't we? I miss that.
-Yael meets with Jeremy to record him telling her all of "Everlasting's" dirty secrets, right after witnessing a possible homicide. This character has gone into cartoonish villainy and I've pretty much lost hope that she can be rescued.
-Quinn's romance with Booth has been a non-factor, dramatically, but I was pretty skeeved out by how, after going to commercial break following the shooting, we spent so much time with them on a romantic getaway before being jerked back into reality. It felt like a cheap way to yoke suspense out of a moment and keep us on edge.
-I've been saying #BringRubyBack for a few episodes now, and I imagine I'll get my wish, with Darius reconnecting with her after Romeo's shooting and possible death. This is the worst way the show could have done this.
-Can the show recover? I think this season's a lost cause, at this point, but I want to have hope that it could fix itself in season 3. It's a steep climb back, however.