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

I'm becoming less convinced that the writers on "Unreal" know what they're doing this season. I've been more positive on the first four episodes than many — they've been a bit more herky-jerky on a basic plotting level than anything last season, but I've enjoyed how it had its characters dance on the line between sincerity and gamesmanship. But "Infiltration," the halfway point of the season, crystallizes everything that's been soft this season: the half-developed characters, the quickly-abandoned arcs, a growing sense of desperation to keep things fresh, and an uncomfortable need to bring in more serious actions that it doesn't know how to handle.

Case in point: the misogyny of Jeremy (Josh Kelly), whose growing obnoxiousness I'd initially welcomed this season after mostly being bored by him last season. He's been using a picture of Rachel (Shiri Appleby) as target practice, something that amuses Yael/"Hot Rachel" (Monica Barbaro) and pushes Coleman (Michael Rady) to demote him, never mind that Rachel told him not to do anything. The moment I knew I was done with Jeremy came early when he was next seen urinating on Coleman's car while belching, something that even Chet (Craig Bierko) thinks is a bridge too far. Chet takes Jeremy out to the woods for an ad hoc version of the retreat he went on before the season of "Everlasting" began. Ignoring that Chet's own problem (he kidnapped his own kid last week) was dropped by the show almost immediately after it became a problem, Jeremy's revelation that he's acting out because he still loves Rachel is simultaneously a "no duh" moment and a failure as a bid for sympathy: he's too dull outside of his boorishness for us to care much about him, and it's a pretty quick abandonment of where his storyline was going (his relationship with Yael was found out literally one episode after they consummated it).

Also abandoned quickly: Dominique (Elizabeth Whitemere), a basketball player who never developed a trait outside of "athlete." Quinn (Constance Zimmer) has picked Dominique as the alternate to Yael for Darius' (B.J. Britt) first overnight date, convinced that she's so boring that Darius will have to pick the girl who she calls "sex on a stick." Rachel's so annoyed with Quinn's manipulation that she manipulates Dominique, convincing her to reveal Yael's relationship with Jeremy to get her booted off the show. It backfires for her but goes well for Rachel and Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman): Ruby (Denee Benton), the black activist who's had real sparks with Darius, gets the overnight date. Yael gets forgiven, placating Quinn, while Dominique is later thrown off, having served her narrative purpose without getting anything interesting to do.

The latest Quinn betrayal comes on top of another one, with Coleman and Rachel going to the Impact Awards (don't ask what it is, it doesn't end up mattering) in Quinn's place to try to win the support of John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd), the tech billionaire who owns the network "Everlasting" runs on. The interactions at the Impact Awards are pretty dull: Coleman plans to get Rachel in Booth's good graces to win the two a new show together, only to find out that he's "Everlasting's" biggest fan (he wants Beth Ann to win) and that he admires Rachel's efforts to, in her words, "do for 'Everlasting' what J.J. [Abrams] did for 'Star Wars'" with the more diverse cast. But that he considers Quinn the real genius of the show, something he says when she unexpectedly shows up. This comes after her machinations to film Darius and Ruby's date, something Jay doesn't do enough to protest after initially promising Ruby it wouldn't happen. Rachel, already annoyed that Quinn stole her thunder at the awards, gets a call from Jay, who describes their date as "'The Notebook' for black people." But if Quinn has new cameras in there, it means she's planning something.

Thus begins the firebombing of the single most promising storyline of the season: the relationship between Darius and Ruby. I was charmed by their chemistry, her admiration of his work and belief that he could do good for black Americans, his admiration for her total confidence in her beliefs. She came on the show to make a point and fell in love. He came on to rehabilitate his image and connected with someone. They even have a shared desire to do right by their family: she's been going to protests since she was 6 and wants to live up to her father, he's playing football to help his family...but might not be able to anymore if his back injury persists. "What if I didn't play football anymore? What if I was just a normal guy?" "I would like that guy even more." The two have sex...and Ruby's father, called to the set by Quinn and Madison, sees the two on camera, walks in on them, and voices his shame about what she's done.

There are some grace notes in this sequence: Darius putting his arms around a sobbing Ruby; Jay, realizing he's screwed up, trying to convince Rachel not to direct the cameramen and to keep this off the air; the lights shining bright on Ruby and Darius and bouncing back onto Rachel, stewing in guilt as she exploits them for "great television." But there are too many problems with the way it plays: it's going too big this early in the season, it pushes Quinn back into outright villainy (to win over Booth, who's duly impressed as well as attracted to Quinn) when she's more interesting when she's in grey territory, and it kicks Ruby off the show when she's been one of the most promising figures on the show. Darius says that he's not good enough "for you or your dad," a cop out in any situation but an especially lame excuse to get rid of a character on a show.

I'm open to the possibility that Ruby, while no longer a contestant on the show, might come back in some form or another on the show, but for now it's abandoning long-term storytelling for short-term shock. We're left without the aspirations to greatness that Rachel and Jay wanted, without the chance for Darius, Ruby, Rachel and Jay to flip the bird to the system, without the possibility of a more interesting dynamic between Ruby and Beth Ann. It also makes "Unreal" seem more like an example of the show it's satirizing, playing with big weighty ideas (the racism in the industry and the desire to rebel against it) without actually doing much with them. 

We're left with a handful of interesting but underexplored characters (Beth Ann, Tiffany, Chantal), an interesting villain whose own plot has been abandoned (Yael) and...Jameson, who I don't think has said more than one or two lines the whole season. It gives the impression that certain storylines are being written on an episode-by-episode basis without consideration for the season as a whole (the opposite problem of, say, the lesser seasons of "Game of Thrones," which sacrifice episodes for an "it'll eventually fit together" mentality). There's very little gestalt and the actual bits aren't working on their own, so I'm having trouble seeing the justification for it.

Throughout the episode, I was convinced this was the weakest hour of the series since the tone-deaf handling of Mary's suicide last year — it has the same sense of character being sacrificed for plot machinations. That was a serious misstep in an otherwise stellar season of television, whereas this is an arbitrary and listless hour that points to greater problems with the season as a whole. "The only thing keeping this from being an all-time-low on the show is some unnecessary violence," I thought...and then Jeremy assaults Rachel. I see, to some degree, where they're taking this, with the idea being that Jeremy is going to get off lightly because of his connections to the show, never mind that even Chet is horrified by his actions ("that's not what a man does") and fires him. It's still tasteless and tactless, playing with physical abuse as a way to goose the audience and introduce yet another weighty theme for the show to quickly discard. Suddenly I'm feeling pessimistic about what the rest of the season holds.

Stray thoughts:

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-Coleman and Rachel's relationship is a snoozefest; I liked how last week's episode gave hints, because of everyone else's behavior, that one of them had to be playing the other, but there's not much coming from it at the moment. Quinn flips back into maternal mode near the end of the episode, warning her about him. That's not consistent with how her character is being treated for most of the episode, nor does it justify that this is the one storyline "Unreal" is taking its time with and that it's doing a poor job with it.

-Speaking of last week's episode: I was convinced that Ruby was in on Jay filming the two of them making out. Given what happens this week, I'm not so sure anymore. Either there's a major character inconsistency (not impossible) that turns her from smart woman who's at least somewhat playing him to victim, or, more likely, that was a weaker bit of direction than I'd initially assumed.

-The shift of Chet from MRA figure to misguided softie to Jeremy's Quinn to whatever he is now has me convinced that they really don't know what to with him.

-#BringRubyBack

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