In the first episode of UnREAL’s disastrous second season, which ended last week, reality-TV producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is flush with hope for the new installment of her show, the Bachelor-esque Everlasting. She’s got big plans for the upcoming season, casting the show’s first black suitor, NFL quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), in an attempt to make Everlasting socially relevant. But unfortunately as fans of UnREAL have learned, sometimes reality comes crashing down on our dreams.
Critics are in near-universal agreement that this season of UnREAL veered way off the rails, in large part because of the show’s clumsy mishandling of the kind of racial issues Rachel hoped to spotlight by choosing Darius over yet another Ken doll knock-off. The show’s shortcomings bring to mind another series that faltered in its most recent season: The Mindy Project. After the sitcom got rid of Mindy’s (Mindy Kaling) love interest, fellow OB-GYN Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), in its mid-season premiere in April, the rest of of the season faltered. The Mindy Project and UnREAL bumped up against a tricky TV conundrum: What if what’s good for a character is bad for the show?
Both shows have brash, ambitious female leads who take pride in being good at their jobs. Both explicitly critique conventional narratives about why and how women fall in love — UnREAL through its show-within-a-show conceit, which illustrates how reality shows like The Bachelor literally manufacture love stories, and The Mindy Project through its subversive homage to the romantic comedy. And both shows feature career-oriented women who fall for someone at the “office” — only to find themselves blindsided when those men don’t seem to appreciate the importance of their work.
After the birth of their child early in the fourth season, Mindy and Danny’s relationship began to strain. The show’s mid-season finale, which aired in December, set up a promising twist: After finally landing her dream man, Mindy began to acknowledge what her friends and co-workers could clearly see — Danny wasn’t good for her. At the end of the episode, Mindy leaves her and Danny’s bed in the middle of the night to visit her old apartment, which she hasn’t yet sold. She measures her closet to see if Baby Leo’s crib will fit; it will. She takes the “for sale” sign out of the window.
Mindy and Danny’s post-baby problems didn’t completely ring true. Danny was always obnoxious and fussy, but his continued insistence that Mindy stay home and keep popping out babies rather than return to work felt a little forced. Surely Danny knows Mindy well enough to know that she’d want to continue working after having children; after all, they met at work. Danny’s hectoring felt more like the show trying to make a point about men and women and choices than a natural move for its character.
Still, it was exciting to see the show take its central relationship and develop it beyond the point where a typical romantic comedy might end — i.e., a baby and an unrealistically large Manhattan apartment. And yet the series suffered without Danny, who was mostly absent from the second half of Season 4. There were a few standout episodes — I particularly liked the one where Mindy goes to Texas — but without the anchor of Mindy and Danny’s spark-filled relationship, the show floundered. Like UnREAL, it felt unfocused, switching plots like a distracted driver flipping between radio stations instead of keeping her eyes on the road.
The will-they-won’t-they relationship on UnREAL has never really been between Rachel and a man — take your pick: ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Josh Kelly); a cameraman; Adam (Freddie Stroma), the first season’s suitor; Coleman (Michael Rady), an Everlasting producer who at first seems like a perfect match. The real tension on the show is between Rachel and Everlasting itself: She’s good at her job, but it’s tearing her apart. So why doesn’t she leave?
The answer UnREAL provides in its second season is that Rachel wants to produce groundbreaking, socially conscious television by shepherding the show’s first black suitor. But as the season progressed, that goal seemed to recede to make way for the typical Everlasting mandate to produce shocking, high-stakes drama. Worse, UnREAL managed to make this pursuit seem, if not worthy, at least more appealing than Coleman’s attempt to expose Everlasting’s darkest secrets — a road that would likely end with our heroes, Rachel and her mentor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), in jail. Who are we supposed to root for if we’re not rooting for Rachel and Quinn? In the second season, they’re the only two characters the show developed past sketchy outlines.
Like Danny cajoling Mindy into quitting her job, Coleman’s sudden turn from a nice Jewish documentary filmmaker to a conniving, cheating cad hell bent on Rachel’s destruction truly strained believability. By the end of the season, UnREAL seemed to be belaboring the Coleman plot, simply to make a point about the difficulty of having a successful career and a fulfilling relationship.
Neither The Mindy Project nor UnREAL gives us the happy ending we want for the hardworking, lovelorn women at their centers. The shows bank on a sort of cynical glee arising from an unhappy ending, watching a woman put her hopes in a man only to be disappointed, time and time again; in the fourth season finale of The Mindy Project, Mindy and Danny reunite and confess they’re still in love with each other — even though, unbeknownst to Mindy, Danny is engaged to another woman.
Perhaps the writers for The Mindy Project and UnREAL feel that a happy ending for its leading ladies would not be so happy for the shows themselves. The Mindy Project’s beloved source material, romantic comedy films, end after 90 minutes; UnREAL’s inspiration, The Bachelor, gets a whole new cast of hopeful young singles every season. But a successful TV show can go on for several years. As with the women of Orange is the New Black, we want Mindy and Rachel to break free from their constraints — but once they do, what exactly are we watching?