Saturday, July 23, 2016

Sophomore Slump: Checking In on UnREAL

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in UnREAL.

At the end of last summer I wrote about three promising new seriesUnREAL, Mr. Robot, and Deutschland 83 – that appeared on television screens over the summer of 2015. One year later, the travails of the first two (Deutschland’s future is uncertain, but a follow-up series probably won’t appear for some time, if at all) offer some insights into how shows can struggle to build on the success of a good first season.

UnREAL, in particular, has caused me to think about a recent suggestion by New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik that “shows get backlash in [Season 2] for flaws that were there in [Season 1] but de-emphasized” because of the thrill felt by critics and audiences alike when they encounter a new show with a unique perspective. It’s a bit of a special case, but True Detective serves as a good example: the first season of HBO’s (now possibly defunct ) anthology crime series met with hysterical raves from just about everyone, except for a few dissenters, which included Critics at Large's Phil Dyess-Nugent. However, those dissenters were vindicated with the advent of Season 2, which featured a new cast and had new directors behind the camera. The main constant was creator Nic Pizzolatto, whose overblown, self-important writing had been a major, if largely unnoticed, flaw from the beginning. With the absence of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to make his dialogue work, or director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction, the flaws with Pizzolatto’s show became glaringly apparent.

UnREAL isn’t necessarily a bad show in Season 2. If anything, it’s lost its way by doubling down on some of the elements that garnered attention for it in the first place, such as its combination of an exposé of reality TV with unapologetic soap opera elements. Unfortunately, the latter part of that equation became too prevalent in the first half of the season, which devolved into a multi-sided power struggle for control of the fictional reality series, Everlasting, on whose set most of the drama takes place. Unlike the first season, however, there’s less of a sense of anything being at stake; it’s a familiar trap that many other soap operas have fallen into, and one that devalues any sense of plot or character development because of the rapidity with which things change. You can see all the moments in which the producers thought they were setting up a big moment, one which fans of the show on social media and the Internet would be breathlessly discussing the next day, but instead each twist and turn loses a little more impact.

Denée Benton and B.J. Britt in UnREAL.

This general lack of weight has also applied more and more to Rachel (Shiri Appleby), the central character of the series. While I was overall very positive about her last year, I noted that she was threatening to become a bit one-note: she encounters a moral quandary involving the well-being of a contestant versus the imperative to make exciting television, and she chooses the latter. There’s been no greater development of the character, so we just keep getting that same dilemma, over and over. I like Appleby, but her performance and especially her part suffer by comparison to the Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) from FX’s The Americans. Russell’s character is easily the best example of a complex and dynamic female anti-hero on television at the moment, and a large part of that stems from how Elizabeth is constantly evolving in the face of new circumstances. By contrast, UnREAL has purposely placed Rachel in a dead end; we’re constantly told that she’s been trapped by her mentor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), who is also the creator of Everlasting. The problem is that it’s often hard to make personal or professional stasis dramatically compelling, and here it’s becoming more repetitive than anything else.

UnREAL may yet pull out of its dive. It’s shown some sparks when it focuses squarely on contemporary issues like the Black Lives Matter movement; perhaps the most interesting character this season has been Ruby (the talented Denée Benton, who’s appearing on Broadway in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), a young African-American activist who tries to stay true to her ideals while competing on the show. She also genuinely falls in love with this season’s “suitor,” Darius –  B.J. Britt, in a disappointingly underwritten role – who’s the first African-American to fill that role in the fictional show’s history (something it accomplished before the real show on which Everlasting is based ever did). It was therefore all the more disappointing when she was apparently written off for good halfway through the season, when Darius decided that he had to send her away before she could become disillusioned with his lack of political commitment.

One strength that UnREAL has retained from its first season is a relatively limited scope in terms of characters and setting. Keeping most of the action confined to the set of the show-within-the-show adds to the growing sense of claustrophobia that the characters feel over the course of the season, and it prevents the action from getting too sprawling, which is often something that saps the energy of second-year shows. I’m worried that USA’s breakout hit Mr. Robot may be trending that way, although I’ve only seen the season premiere and so can’t definitively pronounce a judgement on that yet. Still, it’s striking that the best scene in the opening double episode involved Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a character who barely registered last year. Given that the show ended last season with Rami Malek’s Elliot bringing the global financial system to the verge of collapse, it makes sense that the fallout from his actions would be widespread, but it doesn’t help to create a cohesive story. In one sense, Mr. Robot and UnREAL have opposite problems: one needs to expand beyond the bounds of what it’s already done, while the other needs to pull back and focus on its core strengths.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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