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‘Unreal’ and ‘Mary Kills People’ Teams Talk Topical Storytelling and an In-Season ‘Me Too Moment’

Lifetime dramas “Unreal” and “Mary Kills People” both have complex female characters at their center and have started conversations around hot button issues. And with new seasons about to debut, the storytelling is only getting more topical.

The third season of “Unreal,” which premieres Feb. 26, will explore gender politics, sexual assault and the ongoing, increasingly more complicated power struggle within the entertainment industry.

Originally scheduled to premiere during the summer of 2017, a year after the second season bowed on the cabler, Lifetime pushed “Unreal” back almost another year. That means the season was written before Trump was president and before “the whole world knew what a monster Harvey Weinstein is,” executive producer Stacy Rukeyser pointed out at the premiere party for the show in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

“We told these stories before the #MeToo movement had a hashtag. This season really is Rachel Goldberg’s Me Too moment,” Rukeyser said. “We couldn’t have known what would occur was going to occur. But it is certainly things that we’ve experienced as women and felt as women, particularly in Hollywood, and wanted a chance to talk about it.”

While the show, which is set in the world of reality television and follows the production team and contestants on the fictional dating competition series “Everlasting,” has never shied away from depicting bad behaviors in Hollywood, it has always put its female characters in powerful positions. Quinn (Constance Zimmer) is a take-no-prisoners leader as executive producer of “Everlasting,” doing anything possible to come out on top with ratings, while Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is equally ruthless a manipulator, pulling strings a bit more quietly to get what she – and Quinn – want.

In the third season, the show introduces its first female suitress in the form of Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is a businesswoman who can make millions and command boardrooms but is still looking for love.

“I think why the show appeals and why it resonates with people is that they’re telling stories that are true and have been for a long time,” FitzGerald said. “We’re hungry to see female characters who are flawed and messed up and have their own demons and darkness – and are still women in charge, which we need a lot more of in the world, not just on television.”

“Unreal’s” third season will also dabble with the idea of one of the male contestants claiming one of the women in charge abused her power with him.

“It’s so great that women are coming forward and women are being brave enough to speak up. We haven’t, so far, had a man who speaks up against a woman. Even in my world of showrunners, the accusations against women have been zero. I don’t know if that means it never happens. I know the world of Quinn. I know the world of ‘Everlasting.’ I know the world of what these contestants would do and what Quinn would do to win and get what she wants,” Rukeyser said.

Zimmer, who shared that she really liked having moments of Quinn “not being 100% on her game” but still having to pretend to be this season, noted that there is something “pretty great” about the timing of the show’s release.

“I think had it come out when we shot it, which was last year, we were ahead of the curve, and I don’t know if people would have been as understanding of it. Now it’s like, ‘Yes that’s true, yes that happens,’ whereas if it had aired before, it could have been [dismissed] like, ‘That never happens. I don’t believe that,'” Zimmer said. “The groundwork has now been laid, and we are just walking on it.”

“UnReal” co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro with stars Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Constance Zimmer Richard Shotwell/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

While “Unreal” is expanding the conversation around the politics of power, “Mary Kills People,” which premieres its second season Mar. 12, dives into the politics around death.

As the titular Mary, Caroline Dhavernas is a doctor, saving people in some instances while moonlighting as a doctor of death, assisting in the suicides of terminally ill patients. The second season will see her in a “dark place,” revealed Dhavernas.

“She’s a loner. In Season 2 she starts off without Des and is having a better time without him, so the least she can share, she thinks the better,” Dhavernas said.

But as the season unfolds and a new foe in the form of Olivia (Rachelle Lefevere) threatens Mary’s ability to do what she does without fear of repercussions, things unravel a bit and the philosophical questions the show inspires its audience to consider only get more complicated.

“I think that if we’ve done our jobs properly, Olivia is a little bit of a mirror to Mary. And rather than rooting for one or the other, I’m hoping that what people will do is wonder why they’ve been rooting for Mary. Is she doing the right thing for the right reasons? Do the ends justify the means? I’m all for the big, heady questions,” Lefevre said.

Lefevre said that when she told people what she was working on, she found many thought they knew where they stood on the idea of assisted suicide but that their beliefs often came with caveats.

“Everyone has this version of this stance politically, but then they maybe have this situation in their family, and that lets them look at it a little differently or consider the suffering of the person,” Lefevre said. “We’re talking about something that isn’t legal everywhere – it’s a really complicated issue. It was on the ballot in California, and it got people talking. [It passed here] and it may be on the ballot again [in other states], and that will open the conversation up a little more. If people who watch this show start thinking about these questions of quality of life that also keeps the conversation going and makes everyone a little more informed when the issues come up again.”

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