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UnREAL Season Three (Spoiler-Free) Review

"Lifetime's standout drama returns to form"
I, like many critics, really enjoyed the first season of Lifetime's UnREAL, which deftly explored the dark and ridiculous side of a Bachelor-esque dating show. And, like many critics, I was pretty disappointed with the show's disjointed and uninspired second season, which - after a strong start- pulled the show's focus from its stellar leading ladies (Shiri Appleby's complicated Rachel and Constance Zimmer's head bitch in charge Quinn) and lost the plot by over-stuffing the season with racially tone-deaf moments and turning all the show's characters into barely functioning human beings. Well, after taking some time off to re-calibrate the series (it's been a year and a half since season two), UnREAL returns on February 26th in fine form. I was completely hooked on the five episodes screened for critics, and I cannot wait to see how the season wraps up. The third season succeeds where season two failed for two main reasons. First, the series once again brings the focus back on Rachel and Quinn, the real (platonic) love story at the heart of the series. Pair either woman up with whomever you want romantically, writers, but don't forget that these two characters cannot function without the other (which, of course, is certainly not a good thing for either lady, but that's a story for another day). In the first five episodes, roughly 95% of the scenes involve one or both characters, forcing the action of the season to flow through them (and, in turn, allowing the supporting characters to resonate more, as their actions directly impact the two characters we care the most about). Zimmer, who earned an Emmy nomination for season one, is particularly effective this time around, providing a depth to Quinn that was previously untapped. There are moments of vulnerability that shed light into who this ball-busting woman really is, behind the tough-talking facade. We know she genuinely loves Rachel, but this time around it's apparent Quinn cares more for others than even she might realize. By no means does this soften the character, and Quinn's acerbic wit is on full display, but it allows Zimmer a real chance to shine in a way that she hasn't since season one. A simple look or a lift of an eyebrow can convey more than a line of dialogue, and Zimmer is just so darn good. As for Appleby, well, Rachel doesn't exactly have her shit together this year, but she certainly has a backbone (and let's Jeremy know, in no uncertain terms, she is not ok with him, thank god). I've never loved the convoluted deep dive into Rachel's (possible?) mental illness (a thorny topic to begin with, and on a show like UnREAL, which doesn't write nuance all that well, it became a bit of a disaster in season two), but this year seems more focused on delving into her actual past traumas, rather than diagnosing her with a particular condition (although there is a new, seemingly competent, shrink on the set this time around, so I reserve judgment on this storyline until it fully plays out). Appleby also gets to play the most conflicted version of Rachel we've yet seen, as she tries to balance her new commitment of sticking to the truth (in light of season two's deadly car accident she blames herself for) with her uncanny ability to manipulate those around her. It's surprisingly compelling and often leads to unexpected results. The other reason season three is off to such a great start? Caitlin FitzGerald's Serena, season three's "suitress," a tech mogul who genuinely wants to find love on Everlasting. Unlike the last two suitors on the series, Serena is multi-dimensional, kind, smart, and someone you root for. You don't want to see her get screwed over by the various suitors, or get her heart broken due to the machinations of Quinn and Rachel. It's a whole new world for us as an audience, and it makes the whole series have a new set of stakes. This time around, you aren't wondering if Rachel is going to get drunk and sleep with the suitor and then derail everything (which is a nice change). And, yeah, some of the male contestants do hook up with various crew members, but Serena remains relatively unscathed by the toxic world of Everlasting and likeable- at least through the first five episodes. Much of this is due to FitzGerald's excellent work. She makes sure Serena is seen as capable, even when she doesn't know the level of subterfuge surrounding her. That's not an easy thing to accomplish. One of the best parts of the character is the connection between her and Rachel. We've seen past instances where Rachel genuinely wants to help, rather than harm, a contestant (Faith, the closeted lesbian, from season one, for instance). But when Rachel's entire job is to produce drama around the suitress, it heightens the stakes when she doesn't want to see Serena get hurt or made to look the fool. Again, there are real stakes here when we actually care about the characters who are put in position to potentially be burned. Now, are there issues with season three? Sure. The male contestants are, on the whole, pretty one-note. Chet (Craig Bierko) has some great moments, but the character still feels superfluous, especially with network exec Gary as the main industry villain in the front half of the season. Jeremy still exists (although he's certainly treated as a pariah by pretty much everyone, as he should be). My main worry is whether or not the series can sustain this new momentum through the rest of this season and into its already ordered (and filmed) fourth season. So far, season three seems like the perfect way to end the series, and I can't imagine there is anywhere else for Everlasting to go (aside from a gay or lesbian suitor, which I could certainly see happening). But, if these are the only quibbles I have halfway into season three, well, that's pretty good. If you hopped off the UnREAL train in season two, you can hop on back on for season three. It's back, and better than ever.


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About / Bio
TV critic based in Chicago. When not watching and writing about awesome television shows, I can be found lamenting over the latest disappointing performance by any of the various Chicago sports teams or my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Follow me @JeanHenegan on Twitter.

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