Y’all, I recently binge-watched the first season of UnREAL in two days because a) season two just started last night, b) it was only 10 episodes, and c) it’s crazy good. This behind-the-scenes drama about a fictional Bachelor-esque program features two deeply flawed female protagonists, a meta-theatrical critique of reality television, and sharply written melodrama. Bonus: Constance Zimmer, slaying as usual. In other words, my kind of appointment television. (Season 1 is streaming on Hulu.)
As a TV-phile, discovering a new small screen gem feels like opening a Christmas present, especially in the hinterlands of off-season television. Lucky for me, the rapidly shifting cable/streaming landscape is changing our perceptions about what summer TV can be. Previously designated as a season-long period of fluff, frivolity, and utter trash, shows from Orange is the New Black to Mr. Robot have catapulted summer programming into television’s so-called Second Golden Age. (By the way, if you’re not watching Mr. Robot, you should drop everything you’re doing and catch up. Seriously.)
Thematically, summertime TV is tackling issues that many regular season dramas barely acknowledge. From the prison-industrial complex (Orange Is The New Black) to delusional schizophrenia (Mr. Robot), showrunners are dealing with difficult issues fearlessly and with impressive finesse. UnREAL’s treatment of mental illness toes the line of enlightening and exploitative. The ruthlessness with which the lead characters manipulate the vulnerable female contestants makes me squirm. As it should; the thesis of the show is that misogyny, racism, homophobia and other insidious societal ires trickle into every aspect of these wildly popular dating shows. (It makes me hope that longtime The Bachelor host Chris Harrison will write an inevitably juicy tell-all.)
Did I mention UnREAL is not only a summer show, but that it is airing on Lifetime? Lifetime, the channel derided because it is written primarily for and by women, the channel known for its delightfully formulaic thrillers and saccharine rom-coms? If a network like Lifetime can produce work that both respects its target audience and thrills new viewers, there is a lot to look forward to in the future of TV. And if the first episode of Season 2 is any indication, we’re in for another summer of raunchy, gasp-worthy, high-octane drama.