[This interview discusses spoilers for the second season finale of “UnREAL,” “Friendly Fire.” Do not read if you have not watched the episode.]
Following a season where Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) were even more ruthless than usual — and an Emmy nomination for both the show’s writers and Zimmer — Lifetime’s “UnREAL” finished its second season Monday night with a cliffhanger worthy of soap opera: a big, messy car crash with Coleman (Michael Rady) and Yael (Monica Barbaro), just as they were on their way to spread the news of “Everlasting’s” misdeeds. Adding melodrama to soap, the instigator of the crash is none other than Jeremy (Josh Kelly), Rachel’s erstwhile boyfriend and would-be rapist.
It’s an over-the-top finish, but that’s been de rigueur for the show’s second season. The first season of the show drew accolades; the second has inspired, in some critical circles, a sigh of disappointment. An already unwieldy plot quickly bounced off the rails as the characters struggled to make relevant the casting of a black Suitor Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), a reluctant pro-footballer with secrets of his own. “UnREAL” added to that a rape subplot, a men’s rights activist, a fertility plot, a few different show takeover gambits and a hot girl in a Confederate flag bikini. The twists led some, like Reality Blurred’s Andy Dehnart, to wonder if “UnREAL” was just as exploitative as the shows it’s critiquing.
Some of the season’s unevenness may have to do with changes behind-the-scenes. Co-creator (and seasoned TV writer) Marti Noxon left the show to work on her other project, “Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce,” following a reportedly strained relationship with her fellow co-creator (and newcomer to scripted TV) Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. There are also the inherent pressures of Lifetime’s first real critical success, from a network with a very specific brand. Variety spoke to executive producers Shapiro and Stacy Rukeyser about the finale, how they felt about season 2 and what to expect from “UnREAL’s” season 3.
Let’s talk about the final moments of the finale, where the leads learn that there’s a car crash but don’t know whether anyone was killed. Why did you want to end on such a cliffhanger? And: Are Yael and Coleman dead or alive?
Stacy Rukeyser: I’m not going to answer that, because you’ll have to come back for season three! [Laughs.] It’s definitely your classic cliffhanger of, are they dead or alive, and from very early on, this is the ending that we envisioned. The joke is that you don’t invite a girl to your cousin’s wedding on Martha’s Vineyard and then take that invitation away, because if you do, then you deserve to die. [Laughs.]
The arc for Rachel was to get swept away by a guy who seems like her ideal man. He does the work she wants to be doing, he comes from a good family, he’s kind and smart and all of those things. And then along the way, you know, he gets sucked into “Everlasting,” and he really turns on her, and shows her his true colors.
As to where they end up, it’s really a discussion about Jeremy. This is a rogue act on Jeremy’s part. And there’s a conversation to be had about that scene between Rachel and Jeremy in that truck, when she comes to him and says it’s over, we’re all going to jail, there’s nothing we can do. Is she going to him just to unload — or is she producing him?
I believe that even if she was producing him — whether that is conscious or unconscious — I certainly don’t think she ever expected him to run them off the road, or whatever he did to make this car crash. Her shock at the end is genuine. That is so beyond anything she ever would have thought. And now it’s an incredibly complicated place for her to be. On his emotional arc, he was desperate to do something, anything, to get back into the good graces of their work family and Rachel, in particular. And yet it’s this literally crazy, messed-up thing he’s done. And how does Rachel react to that? Because yes, he’s “saved” them, but he’s also created a quagmire and done this terrible thing, you know, so it’s very complicated. But he does feel like he was saving them and saving the show and saving his family, and saving Rachel. So, you know… don’t mess with our girl, that’s the bottom line.
That brings me to one of my other questions. According to a New Yorker article earlier this year, Jeremy’s character was supposed to be a one-season character, but Lifetime really wanted him back for season two. And this season, the character has had a dark and rather twisted arc. What were you thinking with his story, and why, at the end of the season, would Rachel trust or confide in this person who earlier victimized her?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: First and foremost, some of that stuff you may have read was taken pretty out of context. We love writing for Josh, we love the character of Jeremy. I think the thing that was really exciting for us in season 2 was having a lot more layers to the Jeremy character. I loved him coming back a little more rogue — drinking a lot, eating a lot, with a beard — and I thought it was really interesting to let him go to a dark place. And sort of, as you’re saying, the arc was sort of towards redemption. I mean, we feel very, very strongly that you really can’t come back — once you’ve laid hands on a woman, you can’t go back, that’s it. But, what we are saying is that these people find family in the most broken way, and that this is a form of a broken family.
What we’re also exploring is the battle for people’s souls. Is Jeremy in a place where he could ever be redeemed, and what would that look like? What does making amends look like? Is he going to get sober? I like a lot of the layers that we found for Jeremy’s arc this season and we’re excited to see where that goes.
After Jeremy attacks her, Rachel reveals a long-held secret to Coleman — that she was raped by one of her mother’s patients at just 12. When did you know that was Rachel’s big secret, and why did it come up now with Coleman, as opposed to with Quinn at some point, or Adam last season?
Shapiro: That’s something that we knew from the start of the season. What we really focused on was the trail of Rachel’s mother as being the core trauma — the trauma really being that she told Rachel not to tell anyone because no one would love her. That is Rachel’s series-long struggle for us — am I lovable? That was started even in the pilot — when she was manipulating that villain in season one, and is messing with her head by asking if she feels unlovable. And the truth is that Rachel feels unlovable, so the reason why she’s asking Coleman is because it’s a test. She’s trying to see: Is my mom right? If I tell this person the truth, will they leave?
And, it really is a test. For us, as Stacy was mentioning, Coleman was designed for us as Rachel’s ideal guy. We wanted to see what it would look like when Rachel had a real potential match. Because we felt like in season one, very intentionally, neither Jeremy nor Adam was the right guy for her. Jeremy’s this cameraman who lives in this cabin in the woods, and that’s not quite enough for Rachel in terms the intellectual stuff. And Adam’s like this erudite prince, literally Prince Charming, which doesn’t really make sense. So we were like, what would a real match look like? So we really designed Coleman to be that real match.
Also, with mental health stuff, really falling in love is destabilizing. Because it’s intense — as you become vulnerable you really open up, and it becomes destabilizing. So that moment where she opens up to Coleman is super-important for her as a character, in terms of her series-long arc. She’s really testing the waters.
You undercut some of Coleman’s ideal mate-ness later in the season, when he starts cheating on her with Yael, also known as “hot Rachel.” Why was that plotline important, especially after this confession? Was the idea that he didn’t pass the test?
Shapiro: No, I think the idea is that he’s not up to the test, that he’s not good enough. If he can’t pass the test, than he’s not her guy. And what Quinn is saying in her office later — there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re perfect — is that real love is about finding the person who’s going to pass that test, for all of us. Everybody has some sort of damage. It’s about finding the someone who’s going to see you warts and all and not run.
Rukeyser: We were really specifically trying to say that Coleman doesn’t pass the test. This whole idea of her having this huge secret, and the burden of this huge secret — because again, we feel that that’s what’s so damaging. Not even necessarily the fact that she was raped, which is horrible in and of herself, but that her mother said, you must never tell anyone, not even a therapist, because if anyone knew they wouldn’t love you, because no one wants to deal with that kind of damage.
That was the person who fell for Adam in season one. Everything that he was saying — it was easy to get sucked into that and pack your bag and show up on the tarmac. That’s who that person was. So here she comes along, in season two, and she has big dreams about being the showrunner and having the black suitor. And here’s this new producer guy who comes along. And fine, okay, he makes it so that she can’t be the showrunner — but he’s been doing the kind of work that she wants to do. And he likes her, he falls for her, so there’s so much to be hopeful for in that.
And I think it’s heartbreaking that he had that reaction. I understand it, from his side, I understand why he feels like that’s too big a burden to take on. But you know [Laughs.] That’s why he has to die. Or I mean, maybe die!
Shapiro: The other thing we felt like it reinforced is that Coleman is part of a class of fancy, undamaged people that Hot Rachel is also in — and the people who work on the show are all the broken people and the orphans, and they have to stay together.
Rukeyser: We did talk about this class thing. Because when Jeremy hears what happened to Rachel, he has a very different reaction to it than Coleman, and it makes him understand Rachel in a way he never did before. It turns him completely. So he is a mensch, to that degree.
It’s interesting to think about Rachel as sympathetic, because this season, it’s kind of breathtaking how manipulative Rachel and Quinn are. For example, Rachel and Quinn are both very enthusiastic in goosing the show’s racial tensions in a way that’s pretty distasteful. How did you navigate balancing their unsavory sides with their sympathetic traits?
Rukeyser: It was not necessarily our intention to make them “unlikeable.” We feel that Quinn and Rachel both have giant hearts, and they are in this business producing this show, which makes them frequently do terrible things. And Rachel in particular, that is her essential inner conflict, which has fascinated me since I first read Marti [Noxon]’s and Sarah’s pilot script. Certainly, we saw that there are moments that are pushing that further, but our intention was never, oh, now they’re really being unlikeable or something.
What about episode seven, “Ambush” — where Rachel orchestrates a situation where a police officer shoots Romeo (Gentry White)? To my mind, that was a very damning moment for the character.
Rukeyser: Yeah, totally. We just try to get inside of these characters and write from their emotional truth. And I understand it. I understand it, as messed up as it is, I understand like — Rachel having just been given this challenge by Adam, of like, you’re not making history, you’re not doing anything, you have a fake date on a fake boat on a fake lake, this is “Everlasting,” you are completely delusional. And then here’s this guy she wants to impress, who promises her this other thing. So I understand where it’s coming from. It’s completely naïve and privileged to think that this is the right thing to do, but I understand it. And, of course, it has a terrible effect on Rachel, because she realizes what she’s done, too. All we can do is try to write from that truth, which has a lot of vulnerability — to me that is real life, that people think they are doing the right thing and make terrible mistakes and it has a terrible effect on them. And Shiri Appleby is — there’s no one more fascinating to watch go through that process.
Have either of you read some of the reactions to that episode in particular? It received a lot of criticism. Are you happy with the way that episode was received? Did you feel like you communicated your message?
Shapiro: We decided that [“Ambush”] was the story we wanted to tell six months ago. It was something we committed to swing for the fences on, and obviously the context it aired in made it even more poignant.
We think it’s a really important conversation; I think we’ll leave it at that. As Stacy said, we write from inside these characters, and in terms of having Jay saying to Rachel, “This is not your story to tell” — that’s something we felt strongly about. We’re definitely aware of the reaction, but for the most part I try to kind of ignore the hype and the criticism, because we’re the people who actually have to write the show, so we want to try to stay inside the integrity of our storytelling. But we’re aware it sparked conversations, and I think in the meta- meta- meta- sense, we both feel like it’s a really important conversation.
You’re writing a show about a show that is not just frequently but usually exploitative. How do you not make the show you are writing also exploitative? For example, the storyline about Darius as the first black suitor is both a milestone narrative for “Everlasting” and one for “UnReal,” too. So how do you not be like the show you are writing about while being the story you are telling?
Shapiro: I will just say, it’s certainly very meta. We just have a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of conversations about it, and try to be as transparent as possible, and honest about our intentions and motivations as possible, and listen to all the voices and people in our writers’ room and do the best we can. I think that certainly we have a lot of integrity in the way we went about thinking about the story, and our intentions for telling the story. It’s a super complicated story to tell, which we knew it was going to be.
This season leaned into big, explosive moments — the pregnancy reveal, the epidural, the shooting and the car crash, just to name a few. Why did you want to get more eventful, and what have you gotten out of it?
Rukeyser: It was super exciting, at the beginning of the year, when we pitched everything to the studio and the network. And yeah, we had some big ideas and some big swings and some big plot twists, some big oh-my-god moments. And those are part of what people have come to expect from “UnREAL,” and it’s exciting to them, and it’s exciting to us too.
The challenge is always to balance those moments with the character moments and the emotional moments. That’s what we’re always trying to do. And it’s chock full of story, this show. You’ve got what’s happening on “Everlasting,” what’s happening with the contestants on “Everlasting” behind-the-scenes, and then you’ve got what’s happening on “UnReal,” with those characters. So it’s chock full of story, and it’s always a challenge to make sure we’re servicing that in a deep sort of way. So it’s a pendulum that swings, and as we look forward to season 3, we want to make sure we’re balancing. We’re never boring [Laughs] and we want to keep that going, but we want to make sure we have that emotional resonance.