Monday, February 26, 2018

REVIEW: 'UnREAL' - Quinn and Rachel Struggle Managing Their Reckless New Star in 'Oath'

Lifetime's UnREAL - Episode 3.01 "Oath"

In a desperate attempt to keep Everlasting afloat following the PR nightmare of the previous season, Quinn brings Rachel back from self-imposed "exile." Together they must manage Serena, a Silicon Valley mogul and this season's suitress.

I honestly didn't know if I would return to UnREAL for its third season. The first season was incredible and the second season was absolutely terrible. It made the mistake a lot of prestige shows make in confusing darkness with complexity. Those are two wildly different concepts that nevertheless get muddled in this medium. Just because something is dark doesn't mean it's good or compelling to watch. The audience doesn't have to like the characters or their actions. But there still needs to be something inherently interesting around the message the show is trying to send. That message was completely nonsensical in the second season. In the first year, it was marvelous to see this cutthroat world of desperation where everyone was painstakingly searching for love in a world where the mere concept is nothing but a construct to entertain the masses. The second year tried doubling down on the big and broad twists. It became a formula that was easy to deduce while never being all that interested in exploring the consequences of certain actions. Last year wanted to have a conversation about racial relations in this country. And yet, it never used that as a framing device to tell engaging and interesting stories about its characters of color. Instead, police shootings and racial bias were always told from the perspective of the white characters. It was a mess of a season that ultimately ended with two shocking deaths of characters who were nothing more than walking plot devices. The show burned a lot of good favor last year. It should be interesting to see who all is willing to return this year and if it can actually recapture any of its former glory.

There was hope in the press cycle of the third season that things would improve because a new showrunner was named: Stacy Rukeyser. However, one does have to take her appointment with a grain of salt. She was the number two executive writing directly under Marti Noxon in the first season and Carol Barbee in the second. Series co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is still the main voice of the series with the showrunner having to figure out a way to tell the stories across a ten episode season. Plus, Rukeyser still has to take some of the blame for the second season because she wrote three episodes - including the season finale. If a newcomer had joined the staff this season, then it would have been highly likely that the show would have just ditched that last minute twist from last season and wrote out Chet and Jeremy altogether. Because it's someone promoted from within, there's not all that much awareness that mistakes were made last season that ruined the show to a severe degree. In all of the press about the new season, Rukeyser mostly just redirects questions about the second season criticism as a way to talk about not all the big swings working except in how it frames things for Rachel in Season 3. That's awkward and misplaced without it seeming like a lesson was learned at all. So again, there's the hope that things are better. But there's still the mystery of whether or not I actually want to stick around and see if it happens.

Of course, that's a moot point now because I did watch "Oath" and am now reviewing it. It was just important to write down these feelings so that I can once again express my thoughts and criticism of the show. It was in a really rough position. It returns with its third season once again with a premiere that is mostly exposition. All of the premieres for UnREAL are like this because they have the burden of introducing a new group of characters. Each season of the show mirrors a new season of Everlasting. There's a little bit at the top of "Oath" about Quinn needing to bring Rachel back while Chet helps pitch the new suitor for the show. But it's still fundamentally about introducing Serena, the Silicon Valley tech mogul, and the new star of Everlasting. She is a compelling character upfront. She presents a new way in for the show to openly talk about its feminist appeal. When UnREAL first started, it delivered a powerful message about female characters being just as fundamentally flawed, complex and dark as their male counterparts. Quinn and Rachel are the anti-heroes of this story. They will do whatever it takes to create entertaining television and advance their own agendas. It was something apparent within the structure of the show that didn't need to be openly talked about in the actual dialogue. But now, it is a part of the conversation amongst the characters. Quinn and Rachel are battling against executives that are ready to be done with the show. Casting a female suitor is the only way they believe they can be relevant for another year. As such, it's not an inspiring note. It's just them manipulating the feelings of this particular moment in time to their own advantage to safe their own skin.

And yet, Rachel builds a strong connection with Serena right away just like she has done with the previous two suitors. Of course, the relationship has to be different this season because it will be completely platonic. When a man was the focal point of the show, there was always the risk of Rachel falling in love with him and compromising the entire purpose of the show. This year Rachel looks up to Serena. She sees her as an image of a woman doing everything right and still being abused by a sexist world. Serena built a name for herself and is one of the most important and influential names in the tech industry. But she still feels insecure and out-of-place in that world. That's how Rachel can connect with her. However, the show is mostly using Serena's casting as a way to shake up the formula of the first two seasons. Adam and Darius were manipulated by the show's producers. They could believe they were forming these genuine connections but it was all just a ruse in order to create drama with it all building to surprising and stunning conclusions. Serena is here for the right reasons. But she's also desperate. She sees the show as a last resort and is desperate for it to succeed. As such, she is approaching it very differently. Again, this is the energy necessary for the show right now. It desperately needs a shake up. The producers can't resort to the same tricks as before. They have a formula that works for them. They don't feel the need to change because they have always gotten away with the craziest behavior on this set. And yes, there are several moments throughout this premiere where Serena is being manipulated by Rachel because she trusts her as a straight-shooter who won't lie to her. But in the end, she understands that she's the one actually in charge. And so, she doesn't want to create any false hope for the contestants or do anything just for the pure drama. In turn, that forces Quinn to take action in the editing to make Serena seem more off-putting and icy. That's the edit she'll be getting which might be a self-reflection on Quinn as well because the two of them do share some similarities that Rachel is quick to point out but Quinn is reluctant to embrace.

Serena is an engaging complication who is meant to throw off the natural balance of this world. She does that to an extent but Everlasting is still largely the same. The only major change behind-the-scenes is Dr. Wagerstein being replaced by Dr. Simon, who actually keeps his patients' confidential information. However, his presence is largely just setting up a big twist for Rachel at the end of the premiere. She realizes that he has mostly joined the show as a personal therapist for her. That makes sense considering all of the time he spends lingering around her and taking note of her actions. And yes, Rachel definitely needs some therapy that doesn't come from her mother. She has a lot of problems to unpack by someone who is completely unbiased. Him being a part of the show too could be an intriguing complication. But there is also the risk of how forthcoming with information Rachel will actually be. That's the big mystery established here. Her return is dominated by the idea of absolute truth. She is being completely open and honest with everyone. It doesn't get in the way of her producing abilities at all. It strikes a new dynamic with her crew. But it's still a conversation that ultimately pivots all around the accident that happened in the season finale. Rachel, Quinn, Chet and Jeremy make a blood pact to never share the truth about what happened out there. That's just absolutely silly. It's the show establishing this bond that is way too broadly defined. Again, Chet and Jeremy just aren't that interesting as characters. Chet is the same as he has always been by bringing his latest young girlfriend to the set to make Quinn jealous. Meanwhile, Jeremy has made the full turn into sociopath. He is just walking around like nothing has really happened. And if the show is trying to suggest that he caused that accident because Rachel manipulated him to, that's just so horrendous and off-putting. That relationship is so toxic and shouldn't be seen anymore. And yet, it remains a pivotal part of the show with Jeremy still being madly in love with her and Rachel seeming unable to make any actually progress while her abusers are still in her immediate orbit. So, there's change this season but the show is still frustratingly the same as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Oath" was written by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro & Stacy Rukeyser and directed by Peter O'Fallon.
  • Absolutely none of the new contestants stand out in a memorable way. The one who gets the most time devoted to him in this episode is also the one who "shockingly" gets eliminated. That was a really damaging pattern last season that took the surprise out of a lot of what the show was doing. But these new characters still need personalities as well and not just their bland descriptions that the producers point out.
  • Rachel may not be in a lust-filled relationship with the suitor of the show this season but she is still being defined with a love interest as well. This year it just presents itself through one of the new contestants. He just happens to be a man who served in the Peace Corps and would rather sleep outside. And yet, it's annoyingly pointed out by Jay that this is the exact guy that Rachel would go for. That just makes it seem too forceful.
  • There's a big moment where Chet asks Rachel to be brutally honest about her opinion of him. She gives this epic speech about how he is a manbaby who doesn't know what he wants and wasted the best years of Quinn's life. It's treated as a shocking moment of realization for Chet. And yet, that's literally been his exact story for the entire series so far. It's not surprising in the slightest.
  • There's weirdness afoot with network executive Gary and producer Madison conspiring together to force Quinn out of the show. All of the behind-the-scenes backstabbing over who gets to be the showrunner of Everlasting was done to death last season. And now, it seems like it is happening all over again with the generic story of Madison sleeping with her boss but telling everyone else she isn't.
  • There's still the ongoing question about how much the outside world knows about what's happening on the set of Everlasting? Someone needed to deal with the consequences from last season. Firing Dr. Wagerstein mostly feels like scapegoating to avoid too big of a change on the show. And then, there's the idea of Serena just getting a phone to Google one of the contestants. Plus, there's the implication that Quinn's editing choice will ultimately effect the way the contestants see Serena later on in the show which is yet another verisimilitude problem the show always choices to ignore.