Power brings out the worst in people, something TV has spent the past decade exploring. Whether it's Walter White discovering the monster beneath the mild-mannered man in "Breaking Bad" or Joffrey Baratheon finding new and increasingly grotesque ways to be awful on "Game of Thrones," we've seen enough of it on the screen for it to grow redundant, especially as certain shows ("Game of Thrones," "Fargo") seem eager to top their last gruesome outing in nearly every episode. What's exciting about "Unreal," then, isn't just the novel milieu (a "The Bachelor"-esque reality TV show) or the primary focus on women instead of men, but how we see people on the show and on the show within the show committing to the characters they're playing, no matter how odious, while offering faint glimpses of the better person that might be dying with their performance.
That's front-and-center with Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), producer-turned-showrunner of "Everlasting." Season 1 of the show centered on the push-pull relationship between Rachel and the show's creator, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), a witheringly sarcastic director and dictator who fully embraces the show and world's venality. Rachel, introduced last year with a "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, was always a more reluctant image- and people-manipulator, showing more empathy towards the contestants while still pushing them to do terrible, sometimes dangerous things for the camera.
That Rachel is gone, by all appearances, in season 2. The new Rachel is introduced getting matching wrist tattoos with Quinn: "Money. D---. Power." If there's any reluctance in her carriage and expression in the opening montage, it's quickly drowned out by booze, coke and a sexual dalliance with Romeo (Gentry White), reaching orgasm as she yells out that she was the one who brought the first black suitor to the show after 13 seasons of white men. "We're gonna make history!" The morning after brings a hangover and a concerned call from the head of the network, who reminds Rachel and Quinn that said suitor, football player Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), is currently a PR nightmare following his expression of "b----, please" to a female reporter in a post-game interview. But they assuage some of their boss' fears by promising the best ratings of the show's history as they bring on, for example, a black activist and a "hot white racist" (seen on her Instagram in a Confederate Flag bikini).
As opposed to the first season's debut, which saw us jumping right in to the filming of "Everlasting" season 13's premiere, much of season 2's first hour is spent setting things up and getting the wheels rolling before the real work on the episode begins. That's not a criticism, however, when we get to see how Rachel interacts with the suitor and contestants vs. how she treats the crew, in four parts:
Part I — The Suitor: Introduced in his limo bringing him to the mansion, Darius is cognizant of his image problem and of how appearing on a reality TV dating show might not help. Rachel, herself a bit of a volatile product, leans back in the limo, nodding, smirking at him and massaging his sense of being wronged by that reporter. "She tried to bait you...they want you to be a monster on the field and a choirboy 10 minutes later..." They have good interplay, and Rachel does a lot to relate to him (she mentions the time she called her job "Satan's a------" on live television and how she came back from it), stressing that one mistake does not make him who you are. There's a limit to how much she believes it, but no limit to how well Appleby and Rachel can sell it to their new star, one she has a fair amount of chemistry with (though she probably doesn't want to repeat the mistake of falling for the suitor like she did last year).
Part II — The Reluctant Contestant: Ruby Carter (Denee Benton), a Black Lives Matter activist and Berkeley student, isn't terribly eager to be on the show. Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapan), the only black producer on "Everlasting," is understanding, choosing not to bring her if it won't allow her to graduate. "I did not think I had a line, but derailing a strong black woman's education is it." Rachel, in full showrunner mode, doesn't care, and she schleps up to Ruby's school to convince her that an audience of 60 million people per week is the best possible place for her politics. Ruby calls out the show for being racist and misogynistic, noting that black women don't get any airtime. "I thought you didn't watch it," she says with some slyness. She's far snarkier with Ruby than with Darius because she's being openly cynical, baiting someone with a voice with a promise to air it and a not-too-hidden eagerness to exploit it. It works. Ruby's in.
Part III — The Producers: Rachel spends most of her time steamrolling her former equal producers, including Jay, but most startling is how she treats Madison (Genevieve Buechner), a production assistant last season promoted to producer after performing oral sex on Chet, "Everlasting's" not-really-creator. Madison is meek, small, and childlike, wearing pigtails far beyond the point of fashionability (something Quinn mocks mercilessly after Madison tries to defend London, a Muslim contestant who doesn't want to wear a headscarf). Rachel demands that Madison exploit the emotions of Chantal (Meagan Tandy), a contestant whose fiance died in a car accident recently. "Build sympathy...tell her your mom died recently." "My mom did die," Madison says with full eyes and a throaty voice. "There you go," Rachel responds sarcastically, showing little of the kindness towards contestants she did last year.
What follows is what's already one of the most uncomfortable, bravura moments in the show's history so far, with Madison making small talk with Chantal for her first on-camera interview, only to get Rachel's voice in her ear pushing her to ask about Chantal's fiance...who, it turns out, died in an accident while Chantal was driving. The disjunction between Rachel's total lack of emotion and matter-of-factness and Madison, who breaks down during the interview in ugly-cry mode, just short of full-body sobs as she pushes forward with the interview, is unsettling as Rachel-through-Madison gets their promo line from Chantal: "I will love again or die trying." Madison vomits after the difficult conversation, but follows with "That was...amazing." A new Rachel is born, with a possible look into what Rachel was like in the past. The new showrunner recognizes something. Quinn beams.
Part IV — The Crew: Jeremy (Josh Kelly), Rachel's ex and "Everlasting's" director of photography, was by far the least-interesting part of season one, a blandly hunky charisma void used primarily as a device. The solution in season 2: make him a gigantic creep. Now openly hostile to his ex-girlfriend turned boss, Jeremy spends much of the episode undermining Rachel, trying to find out which girls are getting cut (there's an unwritten rule that the crew can sleep with them) and referring to one in particular as "hot Rachel" ("She's the one who kind of looks like you, but hot and not crazy and actually takes showers from time to time"). Rachel can't fire him for that, as he's a "sexual harrassment lawsuit waiting to happen," according to Quinn, nor can she fully respond to Jeremy when he opines that he doesn't care if she hurts herself. "That's a really dark thing to say," she says, touching her neck, her mask falling a bit before she leaves, the camera swiveling as she puts it back on, running her hands through her hair before battle.
But something she can do, after learning who else is looking for the "kill list" of contestants, is fire someone on the crew to make Jeremy's job more difficult and prove that you can't be a "sexist manbaby" on set and get away with it. As she walks away from having won that small battle, her face goes from slack to smile. There's reason for her to be happy, but it's as much about the new power she wields as the chance to punish bad behavior.
Really, the whole world encourages bad behavior, with Rachel and Quinn taking pride in the show getting their first black suitor while encouraging racist depictions of Ruby and London and potential blowups between Beth Ann and Chantal (the Confederate and another black contestant). So it shouldn't be much of a surprise when "Everlasting's" other creator, Chet, returns from a Paleolithic retreat slimmed down and sober but leaning into his misogynistic tendencies, trying to push the show into an even crasser extreme (and convincing Romeo and Darius that it's the way to go). Quinn and Chet more or less agree to fight to the death for the soul of the show (well, whatever "Everlasting" has in place of a soul), and Quinn wrenches control of the show away from Rachel, partially as a way to make sure Chet's grubby hands are off of it, but also because she let her eyes off Darius and let Chet get ahold of him. "You're my girl, but I need Chet dead forever," Quinn says before taking control. The camera cranes over Rachel, her mask falling, looking as lost now as she did in season 1. Power is intoxicating, and when it goes away, withdrawal is a nightmare.
-I've praised her to high heaven above, but Appleby deserves a lot of credit for making her thoughts manifest with the smallest changes in expression and for embracing Rachel's dark side without commenting on it. A lesser performer would try to elevate themselves above the material and the character, showing that they still have a soul and that their character isn't so bad after all. Here, we get brief flashes of the character we cared about last year, but we're also getting the suggestion that maybe the Walter White side of her, for lack of a better way of putting it, isn't just an act.
-The show is playing more openly with the racism and misogyny that lies in a lot of American television. We're only seeing glimpses at the moment, but it's plenty combustible.
-Chet rambles about a generation of "wimps and b------" among the men of the day and how the new version of the show should restore the natural order of things, sounding like a Men's Rights Activist. Quinn may frequently be horrible, but her response to Chet's attitude is perfect: "Are you sure you're not still on drugs?"