‘UnReal’ Season 2 Tackles Gender, Race and Class, Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro Says

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
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UnReal” burst on to the TV scene last year like a bawdy, caffeine-fueled rocket, and in short order, the Lifetime drama won kudos and loyal fans by providing a riveting and unpredictable look at the behind-the-scenes drama at a dating show called “Everlasting.” Shiri Appleby played Rachel, a feminist who had doubts about almost every aspect of the show’s premise but was a natural at manipulating its contestants (and sometimes herself and those closest to her). Her boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), was the ringmaster behind the scenes, a foul-mouthed genius whose battle to get the credit for all the hard work she’s done — and the money she’s earned for the network and the show’s creator, Chet (Craig Bierko) — was never truly won.

“UnReal” returns in fine form Monday, and I sat down with co-creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro to talk about the genesis of the show, its explorations of TV tropes, feminism, female friendship, mental illness and the decision to make “Everlasting’s” season two bachelor an African-American man. Shapiro was a producer on “The Bachelor” back in the day, but she noted in this conversation that “UnReal” is not necessarily an expose of reality TV. 

“I pitched it as ‘a feminist gets trapped working on ‘The Bachelor’ and has a nervous breakdown,” Shapiro said. “Every single episode, we have to break Rachel’s story first, and then everything else goes in around her. People ask, ‘How do you come up with the reality-show stuff?’ And it’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s the last thing we do.'”

What does matter — and what drives the show — is the complex, ever-evolving relationship between Quinn and Rachel. Shapiro concurs with the idea that it forms the basis of the show’s real “love story.” This year, the volatile bond between the two women — who are fiercely loyal to each other up to a point but also damaged, smart and manipulative — is put to the test when Chet, the network, and other powerful forces fight them for control of “UnReal.”

In my conversation with Shapiro, which has been edited and condensed, we started off talking about the casting of a black bachelor, Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), and how television has evolved, to a degree, in how it takes on issues of race.

When it comes to race on TV, do you sense a change in what you’re seeing?

I do. I think it’s really exciting. For me, “Empire” is a massive shift. I’m obsessed with that show. “Black-ish” is really smart and amazing. For us, the opportunity to have characters like Quinn, who are going to say everything that we can’t say — we’d almost be remiss if we didn’t take that opportunity to spout all the horrible s— that executives and producers are actually saying behind the scenes, because we have the opportunity to actually shed some light on that.

Eric Deggans of NPR wrote a book called “Race Baiter,” and in one chapter, he wrote about how reality TV shapes the perceptions of race in America. From the beginning of reality TV, there have been groundbreaking and interesting people, but there have also been a lot of dangerous stereotypes.

Which set us back. In my experience of reality TV, there are these horrible tropes that do great damage: [On many reality shows,] there are only a couple of ways to be black and beautiful, or black and desirable. And the kind of [dating] shows we’re talking about, the idea of a black man with a white woman is still so radically off-limits that [an interracial] Cheerios commercial can [create controversy] on Twitter. The idea of black men with white women is just so deeply taboo and ingrained in our society in a way that incites responses that [most networks] really aren’t prepared to handle.

One of the effects of those stereotypes and omissions is that, over years and years of screen time, if it’s very rare for dating reality programs to show black men and women dating and having romances, then it sends the message that those things don’t matter, they aren’t important.

Yeah. It’s not the standard of romance, and it’s not the standard of beauty that has been presented. Reality TV is kind of this terrifying mirror, in some ways. [The producers] feel like they’re sort of mirroring back the truth about society, but it really is just “the truth” through the eyes of a few producers. It’s “the truth” through the eyes of the industry.

And showing the reality of the middle of the road is not going to get them good ratings. It has to be something extreme.

Yeah. We want that. We eat it up.

Last year, did you get many responses from people who have worked on “The Bachelor”?

I had some personal responses from old co-workers and staff. I got a lot of, “Oh my God. It’s amazing” or “It’s giving me PTSD.” I’ve gotten a couple of those.

Chris Harrison had some thoughts about it.

Honestly, we were just kind of glad he had seen it. It was kind of validating that we were even part of the conversation.

Regarding the new season of “UnReal,” can you talk about where things stand for Rachel as it begins?

The first season was all about the princess fantasy. It was about her falling for her own s—. She and Quinn both fell for their own poison — that idea that some guy is going to show up in a helicopter and take you away and everything is going to get solved. That all fell apart. At the end, Rachel realized that she’s trapped, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. And so if she’s going to be trapped, she’s decided to win.

In the seven months from when we left her, [Rachel and Quinn] decided, forget princesses, we’re going to be kings. There may or may not be some matching tattoos that say “Money Dick Power.” It’s just a reminder of their priorities. They’re like, “We have money, we have power, we have each other and we can get laid whenever we want, so we really don’t need anything else. Let’s go rule. Let’s go take over the kingdom. And let’s live like men.”

Chet has disappeared because he was humiliated at the end of last season. But he is off gathering his strength and will return. He’s been dethroned and Quinn’s become Chet. Rachel’s gotten a promotion and she’s become Quinn. We open on them dancing on a table in Vegas covered in poker chips and hundred dollar bills, in skin-tight dresses, dancing with two hot black guys. They’re back in and they’re going to win.

One of the interesting things about all that is that a lot of “UnReal” is about the female friendship and mentorship. Something you rarely see on TV is the complexity of a relationship between two women, neither of whom is demonized for being ambitious or flawed or sexual.

That is really, really intentional but it wasn’t calculated. It’s 100% true and authentic to my experience in the world. But I don’t think I ever calculated what the response would be to it. I just sort of told the truth. We spend so much time at work. When you’re spending 90% of your waking hours at work, those are your friendships and those are your families. Why aren’t we talking about them, why aren’t we writing [about that? Instead] there’s sort of a female cop thing that happens.

What do you mean by that?

There are roles for women as police officers or whatever, but those roles often feel like male roles with a wig on, a little bit. [In “UnReal,” it’s not about] getting the guy. It’s about being the guy.

Are there new flavors to the Rachel-Quinn dynamic this season?

There are some really new flavors. Quinn has gotten an overall deal at the network and so ostensibly, she’s supposed to be like Chet, developing other ideas and kind of being a big-picture guy. And Rachel’s become the showrunner. We’re watching Quinn try to let go of the reins and let Rachel take control. What does that do to Quinn’s identity and what it does it do to Rachel’s identity, when sometimes [the new dynamics] don’t work? There’s a really complicated thing about when your mentee becomes a mentor [to someone else] and is maturing into a role that’s threatening to you. So they have weird peer moments and they have some really awkward mother/daughter stuff. They have some weird guy stuff. It’s a really, really complicated mess this season for them.

It seems like Quinn and Rachel is the true love story.

That was totally intentional. From the very beginning, when we were casting, we would tell people, this is the primary relationship of the show. They’re each other’s partners. They’re who they talk to when they’re upset. Who do they go to for support? Who do they rely on, who provides for them? Who cares for them? 

One thing that I really appreciate is that Rachel looks like a woman who is producing TV all day and night. She looks like she slept in her clothes and has no time for makeup.

Yeah. The show is based on my short film, “Sequin Raze.” When I pitched and sold the show to Lifetime, I went through it frame by frame [with them], because I was really worried about making a show at Lifetime. It wasn’t where I thought I was going to sell the show. I went through the film with them, and I asked, “Are you really okay with this? Because this is what I want to do. I want snot running down her face. I want no makeup. I want her to look like s—. There’s going to be nacho cheese on her clothes.” And they were like, “Yeah, yes, yes.” I got consensus with them before I agreed to sell the show to them.

Were you surprised Lifetime went for it?

I was really shocked.

Why do you think they were willing to make this show?

I think that they just bought it. They saw the short, they fell in love and I think they knew it was something that was really different for their brand, and they didn’t really know how to make it. So they were like, “You know how to make it, so we’re going to go with that.” I didn’t get carte blanche, but they understood the tone of the short was so specific and the tone was really based on that feeling of being exhausted and being vulnerable and exposed and scared and tired and wanting to go home and all that kind of stuff. It’s about this whole tribe of people living on set and not having a home. That’s really strong in the short. They bought the tone of the short, and that was a big part of the sale for me — it was about them saying that I could do what I needed to do.

This year, was there an effort not to re-do elements of season one?

We’re just like rocket blasting forward. We don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel. We don’t want to retry where we’ve been. But [some] stuff is so baked in that it’s just going to always be there. [There are some elements] we may not shed as much of a light on, because we’re doing race stuff and we’re also doing class stuff.

Without spoiling the season, I think it asks the question, what happens when these women try to live like men? What are the amazing benefits of that and what are the horrible downfalls? I always get a little squidgy when [any discussion gets too into the] gender binary, but in the case of these characters … I mean, we’re just sort of talking about like workaholism in women. I’m obsessed with women at work and the way that work is divided and how women are workhorses and men are “geniuses” and how there are no “creative genius” women. How do women take up the space of being a creative genius who doesn’t do the work but gets all the credit?

Not only are the women’s aspirations given a lot of nuance, I really respect the fact that the show never turned the contestants into victims. They were aware of how the show works.

That’s something that I say over and over again in the writers’ room, that we have to keep the contestants players and they have to have agency. Otherwise the game is just stacked and it’s no fun. And not only no fun, it’s not good storytelling, it’s kind of lazy storytelling. They have to stay three-dimensional, they have to have a point of view and they have to have objectives.

Some people come in thinking they can beat the game, but it’s kind of like an unbeatable chess game, because you’re always going to be outmaneuvered by a team of producers and a team of editors. If you’re from rural Iowa and this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you, you couldn’t possibly understand how you’re going to be crafted. It’s kind of people coming in saying, “I know how to play checkers” and then it’s chess.

Three-dimensional chess.

It’s really, really beyond anything you can control. When your phone is taken away and your food is taken away and your autonomy is taken away and you’re locked in a house for weeks at a time with a lot of alcohol, you can barely control your response. If there’s a camera trained on my face 24 hours a day, I might make some weird faces, and those would be really useful in edit. Ultimately, we have some compassion for the fact that even the people that think they can beat the game can’t beat it.

That applies to Rachel and Quinn also.

It does. They’re being beaten by the machine. All of that is a big part of the [show] — Quinn and Rachel are being manipulated by the machine just as much as the contestants, but they think they’re in charge. They’re getting eaten by the monster, but they think they’re the monster.

You’ve talked about how hard it was to cast these roles. What made it so difficult?

With Quinn, the easiest place to go is really arch, so it feels like she’s an evil queen, and it’s the totally wrong place to go. We just couldn’t find anybody that could nail it [until Constance Zimmer came in].

Ashley Williams played Rachel in the short and she was incredible. She wasn’t available and I was heartbroken. But when Shiri came in, it just blew my mind. I stopped at one point, and she said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “You’re too pretty.” And she looked at me and she said, “If it makes you feel any better, I hate myself every day.” And I said, “It actually does. And if we can play that, if you can play that, we can do this.” Shiri is a gorgeous woman who was willing to go really, really far for us and also play the physical emotion of feeling like shit about yourself. I think that we are able to get away with such sort of hate-able actions for both of them, because they’re both so humane and they have the humanity in their performance and in their eyes.

With Shiri, you can always tell that Rachel is often terrified and horrified and gloating at the same time. And I’m always impressed by how good Rachel is as a manipulator.

There are three layers to every Rachel scene, which are: What Rachel thinks she is doing, what other people think she is doing and what she’s actually doing. Shiri has to carry all three of those things in every scene, so Shiri has to know what other people think Rachel is doing, what Rachel thinks she’s doing and then what Rachel is too scared to admit she’s actually doing.

Is Adam [the first-season bachelor] part of the new season?

There’s a little bit of story left for them.

What else do you want people thinking about for season two?

Another thing we’re explaining is what it looks like when a mentally unstable person really falls in love. [Rachel’s ex] Jeremy is there [on set] and he’s really angry. He’s kind of a different guy. He’s drinking all the time. He’s [sleeping with] anything that moves and he hates Rachel. In season one, it was really important to make it clear that even though there were two guys [in Rachel’s orbit], neither one was The Guy. They were both projections of fantasies she had about the good guy next door and the handsome prince.

They were escapes.

Exactly. We are really interested in seeing what happens to Rachel when she’s confronted with an actual option.

In terms of the mental illness aspect of things, presumably it was your intention to depict someone who was living with elements of depression.

It was, but it was also pretty intentional to leave it a little bit more vague than, say, Carrie Mathison. We all love “Homeland” and we talk about it a lot, but I think that her [situation] is drawn in a sharp way that you can really follow. Rachel’s is intentionally pretty muddy and pretty nebulous. We never really know quite what’s going on with her. Her mom [who is a therapist] has over-diagnosed her. We’ve talked about it sort of being like mental Munchausen [syndrome by proxy]. Her mom has diagnosed her so much that she almost sort of adopted an illness. We’re also trying to take apart what is mental illness or what is just a response to a bad situation. But Rachel has a pendulum thing [going on], and she’s really manic when we find her again.

Do you think she’s bipolar?

There’s a lot of mania [when the season begins]. We’re going to get into that. But I would just say season two – if season one was depression, season two is mania. But kind of in a grounded way. She’s actually kind of on top of the world, too. She got a promotion. She’s got more money. She’s [having sex] and she’s having fun.

But the work itself is a kind of escape.

Part of being a workaholic is self-medicating for depression and anxiety, because you’re always busy and you always have something to do and you don’t have to fall into the void. There’s also the idea that all of your agency is gone and somebody just tells you what to do every day. You’re given a mission and you don’t have to make any decisions.

One of the moments from season one that stuck with me the longest could have come from “Mad Men.” It was that meeting that Quinn has with Chet and the network guy, and Quinn and Chet are there to pitch new shows. I’ve been in that kind of meeting, where a guy just totally does not see you. You have the idea and you’re doing your dog-and-pony show and pitching or talking, and it’s like you might as well be talking to the wall. And then, in that scene, after Quinn sees the guy’s not paying attention, Chet begins talking, and the executive snaps to attention and is fully on board with what Chet is saying. That was a moment where I thought, women made this show. It was so specific.

No one has ever asked me about that, and it was such an important moment to me. It’s one of those pinnacle things in my career and my life. [A moment like that] rips my guts out.

What was perfect about that scene is the way Constance plays this woman who is sure of her own power and intelligence, and who is really confident of her abilities just feeling completely demoralized and defeated in that moment. The look on her face…

Actually that moment is the springboard for all of season two for her. That moment.

For more on “UnReal,” check out Variety’s coverage, a review of season two, and a Saturday installment of the Talking TV podcast, which will feature a conversation about the Lifetime drama.