When “Unreal” returns for its third season next month, it does so with quite a few changes. After last year’s explosive season finale saw Jeremy (Josh Kelly) causing a fatal car accident so secrets about reality dating competition series “Everlasting” wouldn’t come out and shut down the franchise, everyone involved has been lying low for a few months. But now the show is ramping up again, and with that comes a new suitor — in the form of the first female “suitress,” tech giant Serena (played by Caitlin FitzGerald) — along with a new Jeremy who is sober and ready to work behind the camera again, a new on-set shrink Dr. Simon (Brandon Jay McLaren), and most notably a new Rachel (Shiri Appleby), who is determined to live her life from a place of total honesty.
“One of the primary themes of the show from its inception was workaholism and what that’s about, and one of the things we’ve always said about Rachel is that’s one of the hardest things is to deal with herself,” executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro tells Variety. “Having to look at her own life was terrifying and that when the opportunity came up to obliterate herself with work, and that Quinn really needed her, she took it. They have a very codependent relationship, and so that the idea of having a role and a function and being loved and admired for her work and the way she deals with Quinn is very, very appealing.”
Although the “Everlasting” set is a trigger for Rachel, who Shapiro points out is so controlling over a narrative that she never used to be able to tell the truth about even simple things, like what she had for lunch, she starts out completely committed to this new way of life, even when it annoys Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and seems to threaten her ability to successfully do her job. It’s a way for the show to look at addiction and play with the idea of Rachel’s rock bottom, which Shapiro says she still doesn’t think we’ve seen yet.
While recovering from addiction is an everyday process, executive producer Stacy Rukeyser says she believes Rachel is healthier when Season 3 starts than she has been in awhile — but she’s not completely healed, because she is still refusing to look at her role in Jeremy’s actions at the end of last season.
“We deliberately left it open for the audience to make up their minds about, but I believe, and she will tell Dr. Simon later in the season, that she knew he would do something. And I think she has to deal with the consequences of what he in fact did and what it is in her that produced him to do something knowing that the guy was a drunk and had an anger problem and was dangerous,” Rukeyser says. ‘She’s not taking any responsibility for that [and] that’s a lot of what she has to confront. And then she has to unpack the darkness of what got Jeremy to do something to protect Quinn, to protect her family, [as well as] the prevailing darkness that brings her back to this show and gives her a sense of power and agency over people.”
Rukeyser admits that in keeping Jeremy a part of the narrative in the third season, it’s a way to constantly have a physical reminder for Rachel of what she has to face and just how much more she has to get honest about. However, Rukeyser says they are not necessarily looking to redeem him as a character.
“We talk a lot about the corrosive effects of reality TV and the influence it has on our culture and the people who appear on those shows, as well as the people who work on those shows,” she says. “And also he’s another person in this world that has to come to terms with ‘Is this the place I want to be?’”
Although Rachel starts the season refusing to lie, the producers both admit that cannot last long. Her first lie comes tumbling out to Serena, and then she goes on a “lie bender, to continue the addiction metaphor,” says Rukeyser.
Serena is a key figure this season because in having a strong, successful woman standing up on their reality stage looking for love and willing to be vulnerable, “it makes everybody look at themselves,” says Shapiro. “Having a female avatar up there makes everybody say, ‘I’m like Serena in this way’ or ‘I’m not like Serena in this way.’ It gives everybody someone to project onto all their issues with feminism and where it’s left them.”
For Rachel, it was a particularly big deal to book Serena because she wanted to use her as a proxy to show Quinn that “a big, successful career woman is also lovable.” For Serena, it was a big deal to come on the show because despite all of her financial success, she goes on a lot of first dates but can’t seem to land a relationship.
“A smart, strong woman is one of the scariest things to America, and Rachel and Quinn have to deal with that as they’re selling Serena to America,” says Rukeyser. “But it’s also a great discussion about what is it to be a woman today and how are we supposed to be.”
“Unreal” Season 3 premieres Feb. 26 at 10pm on Lifetime.