UnREAL s1 ep 10

*SPOILERS*

“Look, even with all the crap we’ve been through, we still always managed to make a show, so let’s just make a great finale.”

Yes, it’s season finale time (or it was a couple of weeks ago, I’m a bit late reviewing) for both UnReal, the show, and Everlasting, the-show-within-the-show, and any Rachel/Adam shippers’ hopes (ie MINE) are dashed early on as Adam, after a chat with Quinn, breaks Rachel’s heart and decides not to run away with her. Noooooo!

Since Rachel has form for decimating even people who’ve never done her any harm in the interests of good tv, this seems not so much a bad move as a completely catastrophic one, and so it proves; Quinn enlists Rachel and her fury in the new secret plan (after Madison spilled the beans on the old secret plan) to humiliate and destroy Chet, with the prospect of also humiliating and destroying Adam as some sort of performance-related bonus.

Ouch. If I didn’t love this sharp, intricately-plotted, eye-poppingly cruel finale quite as much as I could have, it’s not a reflection on the episode so much as a reflection on me. More than a little sweet on Adam myself (he didn’t really deserve what he got, did he?), I desperately wanted to see him and Rachel smooch off into the sunset, but that wouldn’t have been true to the spirit of UnReal at all. Yes, it’s built around a TV dating show, but it’s been clear from the first frame of the first episode that romantic love has very little to do with it: the relationship that truly matters is the much more complicated one between the two clever, manipulative, deeply flawed, utterly mesmerising anti-heroines (both Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer have been terrific throughout) at the heart of it all.

Even though I got a bit starry-eyed, then, Unreal never lost sight of what it was about, which was both welcome and refreshing; after what seems like years of me writing angry, disappointed posts about increasing misogyny on tv, here’s (not that I’m the first to point this out) a programme created and run by two women, Marti Noxon and Sarah Shapiro, mostly written by women, revolving around two female characters at the centre of an unapologetically grown-up, provocative, often hilarious, always brutal, never less than compelling story with an abundance of interesting, insightful, genuinely arresting things to say about modern tv. I can’t think of any more ways to say how impressed I’ve been with this first season: the writing, the acting, the characters, all of it. Unreal has been superb.

UnREAL s1 ep 9

*SPOILERS*

After last week’s MAJOR developments in their respective relationships, this week, Quinn and Rachel are both faking it with a view to making it, albeit with entirely different ends in mind.

Quinn is pretending everything is fine with Chet; pretending she’ll have a baby with him, pretending she doesn’t know what he did, pretending she’s not about to destroy him. Her scheme is as elegant and ruthless as it is comprehensive, and she’s quite happy to use Rachel, Adam, Madison, anyone to fulfil it, because Chet deserves nothing less: you mess with Quinn, you pay. With everything you have.

While the magnificent Quinn is busy fooling Chet with ease, however, lovesick protege Rachel is working desperately hard to try and fool herself after a text from Jeremy interrupts her long-awaited night with the irresistible Adam, sending her fleeing out of Adam’s arms and back into Jeremy’s because “he’s a really good guy. And he’s good for me.”

Oh, girlfriend. “He’s good for me?” He’s a guy. Not a breakfast cereal.

Despite an entire season’s worth of evidence to the contrary, though, Rachel spends the whole episode trying to persuade both herself and Adam that their nights together and the chemistry sizzling between them since they met mean nothing. Jeremy’s what she wants. And needs. She says.

As the charmingly unfazed Adam (I love that he isn’t fooled for even a second) quite rightly points out, though, this is blatantly, laughably untrue; Rachel’s attempts to push him away and to push his relationships with Anna and Grace make her both desperately jealous and visibly miserable, and her efforts to fake love and enthusiasm with Jeremy are so uncomfortable and unconvincing that only an idiot would fall for them.

Jeremy, of course, being that idiot.

I have no idea why both Adam and Rachel keep saying Jeremy’s a really good guy when he’s plainly not. He’s a selfish, controlling plank of wood who doesn’t understand Rachel or care about what she really wants at all. He just wants to fix her. Unlike Adam who is complicated and flawed and a bit selfish himself, but is also fundamentally kind, decent (and hot) and understands her perfectly. He doesn’t want to fix Rachel, he just wants to be with her and his speech to her at the end sent me SQUEEING into the stratosphere.

Will it all end happily with next week’s season finale, though? Will Rachel choose glorious adventure with Adam or tedious domesticity with Jeremy? Will she break away from Quinn or accept that she IS Quinn? I’m so excited to find out. I LOVE this show.

UnREAL s1 ep 8

*SPOILERS*

After last week’s spooning and soul-searching, Adam and Rachel have spent the night talking and bonding. We check back in on them while he’s massaging her sock-clad foot and telling her a funny, embarrassing story. Awwww.

It’s incredibly intimate; he’s not hiding the depth of his feelings for her, she’s doing a terrible job trying to hide hers for him – squeeeeee!

Ironic then, that just as Rachel has begun to move forward, ex-boyfriend Jeremy decides he wants to go back. He dumps Lizzie to clear the way for him to get back together with Rachel, which would have delighted her six weeks ago but leaves her surprised, bemused and largely unexcited now. And who could blame her? Jeremy has been a jerk for a while now, and Adam is allowed to be all kinds of attractive this week. First, the foot rub. Then the principled refusal to marry one of the contestants live on air and turn it into a spin-off because “marriage means something to me.” Not to mention the flirting and chemistry pulsing through every scene between them. At this point, who wouldn’t choose him?

Of course, being UnREAL, choosing Adam (squee!) doesn’t mean not sacrificing him if the price is right, and since the price is Rachel’s own show to run, she’s on board. To her credit, however, she’s completely honest with him about it, listens to his protests, and finds a way to get both of them what they want. Her feelings for him are clearly changing the way she does things.

Not everybody’s happy about the change in her attitude, though. “He’s a prop, Rachel,” says Quinn, pointedly. “Maybe I’m just sick of being a manipulative bitch,” responds Rachel, equally pointedly. The jibe isn’t lost on her boss, though, who simply fires back: “Well, let me tell you, sweetheart. There’s no sense fighting that. That’s who we are.”

Which begs the question: can people ever really change? It seems at first that Chet has. He leaves his wife, negotiates a settlement and proposes to Quinn, with romantic gestures all over the place. Aw. Except not: no sooner has Quinn become the fiancée, than Chet slots young PA Madison into her now vacant side spot. Ouch.

So why at does Quinn do when she finds out, though? Carry on regardless? Hm. Maybe, maybe not. What’s on that pen drive, Quinn? We’ll see next week, but for the meantime, this was another terrific episode which I thoroughly enjoyed. Significantly lighter and shippier than last week’s (no bad thing), but just as smart and engrossing. Great stuff.

UnREAL s1 ep 7

“This is on us. This is our fault.”

After last week’s tragedy, there’s more than enough guilt and self-loathing to go around the Everlasting set – albeit Rachel shoulders most of it – but there’s a conspicuous amount of self-justification to accompany it.

The despicable Shia confesses to switching Mary’s meds, but then spends the rest of the episode insisting everyone but her is to blame for the consequences. Quinn’s happy to cover up a dreadful crime in the name of saving the show and the jobs of the people who work on it. And Jeremy uses Rachel’s grief as an excuse to scratch his Rachel itch, offering sex as comfort and getting pissy when she treats it as such.

Another bleak, brutal episode of this unflinching look at tv’s underbelly, then, with its flawed, complicated, mostly female characters (eat your hearts out Draper, White et al) doing very bad things while trying to convince themselves they’re for very good reasons.

And yet, for all the lines they cross, I can’t help but like Rachel and Quinn. Adam spitting out “Just face it, you’re a monster!” is entirely understandable but so is his heartfelt “I’m sorry” when he comforts Rachel at the end of the ep (actually comforts her, Jeremy, see what that looks like? Also, SQUEE! ) – he can see the aching vulnerability and sadness in her, just as the audience can.

Conversely, while Quinn isn’t so much vulnerable as almost invincible, it’s impossible not to warm to her indefatigable strength and sass. She is fantastic. As is UnREAL itself. I’m running out of ways to say it, but it’s one of the most surprising, challenging, best shows on TV and I love it.

UnREAL s1 ep 6

“Who let Shia talk me into this family play-date? It’s a Grade A boner-killer, people!”

Heh. Quinn isn’t the only one unimpressed with the idea of an Everlasting episode centred round Adam hanging out with Mary and her daughter: “I hate children,” whines Adam, “Their rosy cheeks and their desperate eyes…”

Of course, Rachel (OMG just admit you’re into him, girl, and go for it) has just the right advice to help him hit it off with the little girl, though, and things could all have gone on to work out reasonably smoothly were it not for the terrible thing Shia did last week, coupled with the terrible thing Quinn and Rachel do this week, the combination of which means things don’t work out at all.

At all.

A dark, difficult, excellent episode this one, covering a lot of deeply uncomfortable ground on domestic abuse, mental health and exploitation in an uncompromising, unvarnished and fearless fashion. Ashley Scott is superb as poor, doomed Mary, with the usual great work from Shiri Appleby, Freddie Stroma and, of course, Constance Zimmer as Quinn, a truly awful person but an absolutely awesome character, whose mind-bogglingly callous but blackly comic reaction to finding out she has a suicidal contestant on her hands is everything UnREAL is trying to say about reality TV in a nutshell: “Do you think I care about a bet? I have a girl on the roof. And no camera. I need eyes on the roof, now!”

Heh again. I know there are very few people in the UK (or indeed anywhere) who would dream of watching this, tucked away as it on a fluffy “women’s” cable channel on a Tuesday night, but that’s a real shame, to be honest, because UnREAL is about as far from shiny, happy, predictable fare as a show about showbiz can be, and it is terrific.

UnREAL s1 ep 5

*SPOILERS*

“10k off your debt if you can pop her cherry in Dixie!”

Um… Classy Quinn’s idea of trying to persuade a deeply religious contestant to lose her virginity on screen shocks even Rachel, but Faith and Adam’s “date” back in Faith’s home town presents too good a tv opportunity to pass up, whether it means risking Rachel’s own fragile sanity in the process or not. Booze, travel and an overnight trip sandwiched between ex-boyfriend Jeremy and über-crush Adam? With sex or the lack thereof on everybody’s mind?

No wonder Dr Wagnerstein’s worried.

But, apart from giving in to Jeremy-shaped temptation (girlfriend, he is horrible to you all the time, FFS let him go) Rachel actually acquits herself surprisingly well as, in finding out Faith’s secret, she also finds her own softer, kinder side and does something truly selfless and compassionate in the process. This being Unreal, however, somebody has to screw with that and it looks like our “heroine’s” tearful attempt to do the decent thing for a change is doomed to failure. Till Adam(!) surprises us by doing the selfless thing too, sacrificing his own skin to save someone else’s, and upping the shipper quotient to DEFCON 1. This may be the only show on tv where leaking news of your sex tape can somehow turn out to be heroic, but it does, and while the controversial, er, self-satisfaction scenes book-ending the episode suggest Rachel’s still got a bad case of the ex, her relationship with Adam is getting deeper and more genuine by the week. There’s nothing more handsome than a hero, eh? Squee!

All this chivalry and heart and whatnot is in danger of rendering the ep a bit too nice and cuddly, though, so it’s just as well for Unreal’s magnificently cynical world view that there’s still plenty of manipulation and nastiness going on too. Jay continues to screw everyone over to keep Chet onside. Quinn and Chet’s break-up gets even bloodier. And Shia wins the Worst Person of the Week prize for doing something so astoundingly, irredeemably vile that even the previous four episodes of people at their most loathesome didn’t prepare me for it. My God. This show. It shocks me anew every week, but I absolutely love it.

UnREAL s1 ep 4

*SPOILERS*

As well as being a smart, savage indictment of certain aspects of the reality tv industry, Unreal is also, unapologetically, a soap opera. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when it’s a soap opera as provocative and engrossing as this one.

This week, Chet and Quinn’s relationship descends into all-out warfare, with Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Bill one of the walking wounded. Bill is a little unbelievable, to be honest – years after Chet stole his and Quinn’s idea for the show, and Quinn ditched Bill to follow Chet and the idea, Bill picks up Quinn’s call on the first ring and jumps at the chance of a date that night? Dude. Accepting that this handsome, intelligent man is not only super-forgiving, super-into Quinn and readily available is a bit of a stretch, especially on Unreal, where everybody has an angle.

Quinn’s love life isn’t the only one getting messy, though – Adam has a very busy week, romantically. A tabloid reveals he has been texting his ex from the set mansion, to both Quinn and Rachel’s fury, although Quinn and Rachel each have very different reasons for being quite so angry. Rachel may pretend it’s all about the show but her growing attraction to Adam is impossible to hide, even as she’s setting him up for exposure and vilification by the contestants – via a fantastically devious move, kudos Rachel – her feelings for him are obvious. Especially to judgemental Jeremy who may well be right about this but is still annoying.

Adam proves almost as skilled at manipulating the girls as Rachel though, and her pride at her protege’s skill, combined with yearning for him, is written all over her face for much of the episode, the most obvious moment being when filming moves to Adam’s ramshackle vineyard; there’s a scene where she tells him she needs him to kiss one of the contestants and when she describes how she wants that kiss to be (in a series of lines so intense I wouldn’t be able to type them, let alone say them out loud, without blushing), it’s clear it’s not really the contestant she wants him to kiss.

While I’m busy shipping Adam and Rachel, though , Adam (and Rachel) are busy trying to secure investors for the vineyard, which culminates in Adam literally prostituting himself with an investor’s wife for Chet and his friend’s entertainment; a horribly seedy scene that’s shocking and difficult to watch. Perhaps even more shocking though is Adam’s unconcerned, utterly matter-of-fact, “did what I had to do” attitude about it to Rachel afterwards. When she is less than impressed, he bites back “At least Kelly enjoyed herself, which is more than I can say for the people you screw.” Ouch.

In some ways, then, this is an even bleaker episode than last week’s, with nobody coming out of it smelling of rosé. I think I’ve said it before, but Unreal’s portrayal of the majority of its characters (including the nominal heroine and hero) as venal, manipulative and generally terrible people is brave for any channel, let alone Lifetime. The fact that, despite that, most of them (except maybe Chet who is irredeemably vile) are completely watchable, often likeable and never less than intriguing is almost miraculous.