Strategically scattered rose petals? Check. Strands of twinkle lights draped over every banister? Check. Crystal chandeliers — all 28 of them — turned on in every room? Check, check, check. On the Vancouver set of UnREAL, Lifetime’s surprise hit chronicling the behind-the-scenes drama of reality TV, the mansion has been prepped to look like a picture-perfect paradise — which means the most dramatic season of Everlasting, its show-within-a-show, is about to begin.
Or not. In her office, Everlasting‘s acerbic boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) is facing a bad case of producer’s block, crumpling up the umpteenth Post-it note she had wanted to add to a board of date ideas (“Travel Ventures: The Amazon,” “Retro Housewives,” “When Wildlife Fights Back!”). She’s too distracted by her ex-lover and ousted Everlasting creator Chet (Craig Bierko). In a characteristically dickish move, he’s brought his newborn son to — gasp! — meet Daddy’s former mistress. “That caterwauling ball of flesh is the result of you cheating on me with your wife, so no, I don’t want to hold it,” Quinn says, teeth gritted. “I’d put a pillow over its face right now when it’s still young enough to claim SIDS.”
As in, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And no, Quinn’s not kidding when she says she wants Chet’s baby to die. “I know, I know,” Zimmer says with a wince between takes. “Quinn is a person who’s okay with not caring what people think, even if what she says is horrible.” The same goes for her producing partner-in-crime, Rachel (Shiri Appleby): “You’re creating chaos,” she deadpans to Chet. “You’re ruining my life with this baby.”
Clearly, UnREAL‘s antiheroines can be a tad… dramatic, but the dialogue is nowhere near as shocking as the show’s success. Who knew Lifetime — previously home to hammy TV movies, guilty-pleasure shows, and that one Grumpy Cat film — could produce a darkly comedic, thought-provoking drama that manages to critique glitzy reality franchises like The Bachelor and explore the power politics between women in the workplace? Co-creators Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer, developed the series based on Sequin Raze, Shapiro’s grim 2013 short film inspired by her own eye-opening experience wrangling contestants. Shapiro figured the story about the mental toll of making reality TV would fit best on a prestige network. “It was really unexpected for me to both be pitching at and selling at Lifetime,” she says. “I didn’t understand how it would fit there. My short was dark and gritty and just one strange 20-minute scene.”
But the coupling worked, thanks to a premise that offered a pair of irresistible shows: one that emulated the addictive quality of The Bachelor, complete with hokey dates and elimination ceremonies, and one that expertly deconstructed the entire fantasy, satisfying the itch to pull back the reality curtain. “There were no expectations for this show to be successful,” Appleby explains. “Nobody was watching what we were doing, so we could take a lot of risks.” Caught off guard, critics lauded the series to the tune of three Critics’ Choice Award nominations and one win.
The trick to pushing the envelope further? Tackle the elephant in the hot tub: the issue of race in reality TV. With Chet out of the picture, Quinn and Rachel have taken the reins and cast pro football star Darius Hill (B.J. Britt) as Everlasting‘s black suitor — a move The Bachelor itself has yet to pull. Yet, Zimmer points out that UnREAL doesn’t spend all season on the topic. The show aims to provoke, not pander. “We’re not trying to cram any ideals down anybody’s throat,” she says. “We’re just shining a light on them.” And besides, she adds, the drama’s more fun: “We do some pretty horrible things to these people this season.”
Horrible things like bringing in surefire ratings-boosting contestants — standouts include Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), a southern belle whose claim to fame is an Instagram photo of her wearing a Confederate-flag bikini, and Ruby (Denée Benton), a black-rights activist Rachel strong-arms into joining the show instead of finishing college — and introducing new players like John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd), a tech billionaire who sets his sights on Quinn, and Coleman (Michael Rady), a respected filmmaker brought on by the network who catches Rachel’s eye, even though she claims to have sworn off workplace romance after last season’s love triangle with suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) and former flame Jeremy (Josh Kelly), both of whom will make return appearances in season 2.
Amid all that, however, UnREAL remains built on Rachel and Quinn’s relationship. “They’re soul mates,” Shapiro explains. “With each episode, we ask, ‘Where are Quinn and Rachel?'” For the second season, the two start off on top — Rachel’s now showrunner, and Quinn’s the new Chet — but they’ll come to face one crucial question: If it’s feminist for Rachel to want to be the boss, would it be feminist for Quinn to share the throne? “They’re two incredibly strong women who want to have a successful television show, but the stories they want to tell are different,” Appleby explains of their power struggle. “Quinn and Rachel are arguing over content.” She bursts into laughter. “Sorry, ‘arguing over content’ just made me laugh. Like that’ll turn America on!” She pauses. “Look, we also have girls in bikinis a lot and scandalous football outfits. That’s good, right?” We’ll take all of it.