Plus: the one plot Lifetime told writers to tone down because it felt too 'far'

By Shirley Li
January 12, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Joseph Viles/Lifetime; Todd Williamson/Getty Images
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When UnREAL debuted on Lifetime the summer of 2015, showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro had no idea the show’s provocative premise — about producers behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like franchise — would win audiences in droves, nor did she expect that viewers would come to appreciate the series’ focus on two central female figures, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby). But the show became a breakout hit, and by the end of the year, EW picked the drama as one of 2015’s best new series and praised it for its take on feminism

Naturally, Shapiro and the writers aren’t taking the show’s sophomore season lightly. When the series returns, it’ll tackle issues like race and feature new cast members. Still, Shapiro emphasizes, UnREAL will always remain about Quinn and Rachel, even as the reality-show-within-a-show switches things up. “In the writers’ room, we literally just break the Quinn and Rachel [story] line, and then we figure out stuff that works with them,” she told EW. Below, Shapiro talks the plan for season 2, the success of season 1, and the one plot Lifetime asked the writers to walk back because it felt too “far”:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your game plan going into the second season?

SARAH SHAPIRO: The first season was really about the princess fantasy, and the power of this fantasy of being rescued. For both sides of the gender spectrum or all sides of it, [there is] the idea that one person can show up and rescue you and change your whole life. And [in] the second season, we’re really exploring race and masculinity. And that is a big shift for us. It’s still Everlasting, but with a different suitor, and the suitor is going to be black, so [we’re] exploring the race politics of that. Also, Chet has absconded to a Paleolithic man lifestyle retreat and become obsessed with the men’s rights movement and lost 50 pounds, so he comes back on a really heavy man trip. And so it’s seeing the intersection of the men’s rights movement and feminism.

Structurally, we follow the one season of Everlasting with this new suitor named Darius Hill, and there are a bunch of women who come and they’re eliminated week by week, so all of that is pretty similar. But the job descriptions have changed. Rachel is sort of doing Quinn’s job, and Quinn is doing Chet’s job because Chet has disappeared. All of that is a power struggle for the whole season. 

Will Jeremy still be around? Last we saw, he went to see Rachel’s family.

Yes, Jeremy will be around. He has really turned a corner, too. He has gone from [being] her conscience to being just a total f—ng a–hole, and basically, he’s come near by Chet and the men’s rights movement and he’s like anti all those bitches, he hates them.

Is there a chance of seeing Rachel’s other first-season suitor, Adam?

There is a really good chance of seeing Adam in the second season. … We don’t feel like that’s done.

Any other familiar faces?

Jay is coming back, and Dr. Wagerstein will be there, and Madison will be there. I think those are all the regulars.

Where are we picking up with Quinn and Rachel’s dynamic?

Where we feel like we landed was that Rachel has realized that as much as she hates it there and as much as it’s hell, there’s nowhere else for her to go. And so she’s resigned to her fate and what she’s decided is that if she’s resigned to her fate, she’s going to kill it. And she’s going to be the master of the universe. … Just imagine Rachel with a lot more money and a lot of power.

With Chet gone off hunting, like, wild boar in Catalina or wherever the hell he is, Quinn sees a power vacuum. She grabs for power, and Rachel goes up a rung. So, they’re back in cahoots, because they need each other to f— over Chet.

Is there still a part of Rachel that holds animosity toward Quinn for how much she screwed her over last season?

You know what, I think that’s just part of their relationship. That last scene for us at the end of season 1 was so important, because there are so many layers in it. In some ways. Rachel needs to be protected [by Quinn], and Quinn says, “Look, at least you’re not waking up using your panties as a pillow having been dumped on a beach in Tahiti.” And there is some truth to that. I think in the sober light of day, it probably wouldn’t have worked out between Rachel and Adam. So Quinn’s protected her, and what we’ve always said is that Quinn is the mom that Rachel doesn’t have. And even though she’s a really f—ed up, mean mommy, she’s a mommy, and Rachel doesn’t really have anywhere else to go.

What are the big questions for Rachel going into this season?

I think it’s the questions for everybody. [They] are sort of like, we’re all workaholics, we only hang out with our work family, what is our life? What is love? In the first season, we set up a love triangle, and Shiri and I talked about this early on, that neither of those guys was right for her. They were just projections of ideas for her. And so what we’re interested in doing this season is looking at what happens to Rachel when there is a viable candidate in front of her, like, she’s met her match. There’s another producer who comes in, who’s educated, smart, liberal, cunning, manipulative, and Jewish, and all of these things that line up for her in ways she’s never been exposed to. What happens to a person when they’re faced with the potential of a real relationship?

What can you tell me about this producer?

He’s slumming it in the business for a minute. He’s been sent by the network to babysit this show, but he actually produces shows like Frontline. … He’s, like, the classiest person that’s ever been on that set.

With season 1, you guys already delved into so many of the tropes seen on reality TV. How do you top that?

I think race is a big way to top that. It’s the elephant in the room … the fact that those shows have never had an African-American lead. For us, I think you top that by pushing our universe into a place the real universe hasn’t gone.

Also with the first season, you went pretty far with the drama that happened behind the scenes, including one contestant committing suicide. Was there anything that Lifetime told you went too far and wanted to hold back?

Yeah, there was one note that I got in the first season that I was like [makes frustrated sound], “If I was on HBO!” But it turned out to be great. In episode 5, which was the episode where Faith went home and almost came out, I had it opening with Rachel getting f—ed by a FedEx guy and getting, like, railed over a barrel in the back of her truck, and then it ended with her f—ing the FedEx guy, but kicking him out before he came, like, getting herself off [instead]. [Lifetime] was like, “It feels a little far. It feels like we haven’t really established her as a sex addict.” And I was like, “Why is she a sex addict?” I had this whole thing where I was like, “If I was on HBO!”

But then what was so great about it was what I came up with as a solution to that note, and I think it ended up being so much better for the story. I love the masturbation scene. It turned into her jacking off instead of getting f—ed by this guy, and so in that way, those restrictions sort of force some really creative storytelling. And with the language, too, there are so many times you can imagine we were going to say the F-word, like Quinn wants to say the F word all the time, but she can’t. But I have to say, I think we’ve started inventing a language to work around it, and it’s a great language that we have a lot of fun with. 

And how are you personally feeling now, going into the sophomore season, knowing that the first was an unexpected hit?

Psychedelically happy, like next-level happy. Honestly, the accolades are amazing, we all feel so grateful and happy, but to be understood is a whole different level. We didn’t know if anyone was going to pick up on the fact that Rachel and Quinn are the primary relationship, and the fact that we’re painting women in three-dimensional ways. We were making a really fun show and that stuff was really important to us, but the fact that people got it has been f—ing mind-blowing.

UnREAL has been praised for the way it portrayed women. If The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have been considered as shows that paint women as “crazy” or other stereotypical terms, do you think you’re taking that idea back a bit with this show?

I do! It’s sort of my mission in life. It’s why I’ve f—ed my whole life and been a workaholic to get here. Jill Soloway talks about this a lot with Transparent, but [the mission is] having women be subjects instead of objects so that you’re telling the story from their point of view … [and] talking about two women working together and what that relationship is like and not about anything else. [The show is] about their ambition and ideals and their home lives that have nothing to do with who they’re f—ing or who they want to marry.

One last question: What should we be most worried about this season?

[Laughs] Everything. Breaking this story is so scary. I’m a Jewish white girl breaking a story about race. We have people of color on our staff, and they’ve definitely taken a very, very primary role in talking about a lot of these things, but yeah, it’s terrifying. I think you should be worried about us making a show about race, I think you should also be very, very worried about Rachel’s mental health, like super concerned about what it’s like when Rachel actually falls in love for real.

UnREAL is expected to return this summer on Lifetime.

Additional reporting by Natalie Abrams

The Lifetime drama—created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and featuring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer—explores the dark behind-the-scenes nature of a reality dating show (which is very clearly mirrored after The Bachelor).
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