February 26, 2018 at 11:10 AM EST

Cue the limos, dim the twinkle lights, and pop those bottles of champagne: Everlasting is back in production.

Well, not quite: In the world of Lifetime’s UnREAL, the reality show-within-a-show spearheaded by producers Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is in danger of cancellation. Season 2 saw the dating program derailed from within, ending with the deaths of one contestant (secretly an undercover journalist) and a traitorous producer in a hit-and-run.

In other words, it was too much for “the network” to handle, and as season 3 begins, Quinn must find a way to keep Everlasting afloat. That means recruiting a “suitress” as the lead, a high-powered Silicon Valley star named Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose presence turns the tables on what the crew has learned to expect from their show about “true love.” And behind-the-scenes of UnREAL, things have changed as well, as EP Stacy Rukeyser stepped up to the plate as the new showrunner, replacing Carol Barbee, who helmed season 2.

Below, Rukeyser previews the third season, reflects on the backlash to season 2, and teases the drama to come.

James Dittiger/Lifetime

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you approach breaking the story for season 3, especially as the new showrunner?
STACY RUKEYSER: I’ve been around since the very beginning in season 1, so a lot of it is the same old, same old in terms of writing the show, but I definitely felt that I wanted to start the season with setting in the emotional truth for Quinn and Rachel after everything that happened at the end of season 2, in particular with Jeremy running Coleman and Yael off the road.

For Rachel, [that means] taking the time to deal with the emotional and psychological repercussions of that. It really does start her on this journey of not only dealing with her responsibility for what happened, but also just going deeper than that and looking at where her own darkness comes from and confronting her own past trauma.

And where does Quinn fit into this picture? Is she trying to help?
Quinn hires this new shrink ostensibly for the show, but he’s really there for Rachel to sort of keep her on the rails, because she knows that she’s going to get [Everlasting] up and running again. It’s interesting, I feel like there’s always that mother-daughter thing that’s happening between Quinn and Rachel, but what’s also interesting is the reverse.

Quinn at the end of the last season found out that she couldn’t have kids and cut her relationship off at the path before he had the chance to reject her, so in the six months that have passed since the show has been shut down, she’s like, “My career is everything,” but her career really needs to be banging [for her] to feel good about that [laughs] and unfortunately right now it’s not. That is what leads her to bring Rachel back to get the show back up and running, so externally there’s this huge drive to not only get Everlasting back up but to build her empire and to become Shonda [laughs] as we say, in order to feel safe professionally but also emotionally. It’s a great professional drive but it’s coming from a very personal wound.

This season sounds quite reactionary to last season. What are the questions you’re hoping to ask this season? The show has always tackled these bigger societal issues, last season looked at liberal allies, gun violence, racial tension. What are you exploring this season?
Serena is in that all too familiar predicament where you’re in your early 30s and you’re doing really well at work and you’re rising up the ladder, yet for Serena, the higher she goes up the ladder, the harder it is, she’s finding, to find a man.

And why is that? What are the expectations that our society puts on women in terms of what is attractive, and how you’re supposed to behave on a date, versus how you’re supposed to behave at work? There’s a lot of sort of “You go girl!” and “You demand your raise!” and all this stuff about how you’re supposed to act at work but then you’re expected to turn into a completely different person when you’re on a date. How do you reconcile these demands and these expectations that women be perfect and never make mistakes? 

So Sarah [Gertrude Shapiro, co-creator of UnREAL] and I both, when we started writing this season before the [2016 presidential] election results, we really saw all of the vitriol that [Hillary Clinton] faced on the campaign trail, and it became very clear to me that there is nothing scarier to a lot of America than a smart, strong woman. And I thought, “Why is that?” It’s a big question we’re asking this season.

James Dittiger/Lifetime

So tell me a little more about this season of Everlasting. I’m assuming it was inspired by The Bachelorette, but what can you tell me about Serena’s contestants and what makes having a pool of male contestants different?
Serena is a change for us. She’s here in an honest attempt to find a husband, to find a partner. She is honestly trying to find a guy, and she’s honestly trying to figure out which is the right kind of guy for her. She has Jasper, who is this Wall Street guy who’s an alpha male who is very similar to her in a lot of ways, and they would be the “power couple” if they got together and travel all over the world and have one career success after another, so is that who she should be with? Or should she be with Owen, who is a single dad firefighter, a veteran from Colorado, total sweetheart but not the baller successful alpha guy?

And of course there are many many other choices along the way. There’s a Russian superstar rockstar ballet dancer, and there’s an Australian peace corps guy, and so we have like the UN of hot guys [laughs] on our show this season. Serena is someone who, you see at once her strength and her intelligence and while that might be intimidating to some men and scary even, there’s such deep vulnerability to her being still single at this time. The desperate need of “I just want to find someone, I just want to be done,” you know? It’s very challenging.

I do have to ask: Season 2 wasn’t as well-received as the first season, so for you, from a writers’ perspective, what was your reaction to the reaction?
[Laughs] Well, listen, it’s never as fun as people loving what you’re doing. I mean, I think that we took some really big swings, story-wise, and I’m proud of us for doing that and not playing it safe, but I was excited to have the chance to have more time to work with all of those big story points, to really investigate and deal with the repercussions of them, and the emotional truth of them, and not just sweep them under the rug and pretend those things never happened. Quite the opposite, you know, to really sit with the fact of, “Okay, if we’re saying all of these things happened then where do we go from here in a truthful way?”

For those who may have dropped off of UnREAL after season 2, what out of everything in season 3 would you say is the reason why people should tune in now?
I think that we are looking at emotional issues for women that are really personal to us and that I believe will really resonate with women and men. Those are the things that I’m most excited about. Of course there’s all the shiny cupcake on the outside. There’s a lot of really hot guys, there are always going to be big twists and turns and watching with your hand over your mouth, that kind of stuff [laughs] but the stuff that really excites me is this journey that they’re on… So, come for the hot naked abs and [laughs] stay for the feminist exploration underneath.

Watch the full episode of Couch Surfing now on PeopleTV. Go to PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device.

UnREAL returns Monday at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.

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