Let’s just establish up front that UnREAL is a new Lifetime series that I had no interest in watching until just about every pop culture podcast said it’s the best summer show on TV and critics rated it above HBO’s entire Sunday lineup. So, now I’ve seen UnREAL and it is, in fact, the best summer show on TV.
The setup is this: Take The Bachelor, change enough details to not get sued by The Bachelor, widen the scope to include the people who make the show that’s not The Bachelor, stretch the boundaries of human decency with all manner of deception and depravity, and watch it unravel over ten episodes. The earlier episodes are streaming — free at the moment — on MyLifetime.com, Amazon, Apple TV, and on demand.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who spent nine seasons as a producer on The Bachelor, co-created UnREAL with TV veteran Marti Noxon (Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Earlier this week, we spoke with Shapiro about her life in and out of reality TV, the origins of UnREAL, and the show’s headlong plunge into really weird sex.
When you were working on *The Bachelor, what did you actually do?
I was a field producer, which involves planning dates and mapping out potential storylines for the season. Then I would interview contestants and help shape the story out in the field.
When you say “planning storylines,” do you mean figuring out who’s going to be The Bitch and who’s going to be The Psycho?
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s like directing a documentary — figuring out who these people are, how they might interact with each other, what kind of situations would make them act in the most interesting way. I created situations.
I saw your short film Sequin Raze, which has some of the core elements of UnREAL.
That was a short film that I wrote for five years. I had a full-time day job in advertising, so I would write whenever I could. It’s a 20-minute scene between two people that ends in the culmination of their Faustian moral crises. It was inspired by moments from all three of my big day jobs in fashion, and in advertising, and in reality TV.
There were times in all three jobs that I just couldn’t believe what the fuck I was doing. There were things that ran incredibly counter to my nature and my morals — that moment when you realize that the price of your soul is a paycheck. You think “What would it cost for me to torture another human being?” which came up in one of my feminist seminars at Sarah Lawrence. You think it’s $50 million — like, impossibly high — and you realize $1,500 a week without benefits will do it.
Yeah, Sequin Raze does not watch like a Sarah Lawrence seminar project.
Right. You learn to work through those contradictions as you become an adult and have to support yourself. We joke about The Devil Wears Prada a lot in the UnREAL writers room — the ending where’s she’s like, “Eff you, job!” and throws her phone in the fountain. The real version of that is she freaks out, get her phone out of the fountain, and texts her boss: Oh, I’m so sorry! For people who actually have to have a job, morality is really complicated.
How did you get Anna Camp for your film short?
I stalked her. I had her in mind when I wrote the script because I had seen her on True Blood. I sent her the script through her agent, and she said no. I wrote her an impassioned email and pleaded, and she responded Let’s do it. I think she took the opportunity to do something that let her go really, really dark.
Through the episodes that have aired to date, I see UnREAL falling somewhere between a brutally dark comedy and a premium-cable soap opera. Do I have any of that right?
I think that’s exactly right. We talk about Breaking Bad a lot. We talk about it as a north star in terms of the existing contradictions in an antihero. We never questioned that a woman could be an anti-hero — I think Nurse Jackie did it really well — but we wanted to give Rachel [Shiri Appleby] and Quinn [Constance Zimmer] as much leash as Walter White ever had.
Why should men watch a show about dating on Lifetime, “the Channel for Women”?
[Laughs.] It’s not even “the Channel for Women” now. They don’t call themselves that anymore. In the golden age of television, you have to be a little bit network agnostic to find success. The truth is that they wanted my show. I think it’s a good show. I think it’s a smart show. Reviewers seem to feel the same way. It’s where we got to make the show we wanted to make. This is a brave new world where you can throw away some preconceived notions and find good content. There are so many networks fighting to have premium cable show that you’re going to find some shows in unexpected places.
Constance Zimmer said in an interview that UnREAL is part of a Lifetime rebranding. How much did you and Lifetime talk about finding a tone for the show?
When I pitched the show to them, it was almost a practice pitch to be totally honest. Knowing that the short film had gotten in to South by Southwest and having my background in indie film, I was pretty bent on HBO or Netflix or Amazon. I was concerned that once they got me, they wouldn’t actually want me.
The tone is so dark and brutal, and there was no wake to make the show without that tone. I told them I wasn’t going to change it and that this was the show I wanted to make. I asked Nina Lederman [Lifetime’s SVP for scripted series] if she could deal with scenes with no makeup and horrible wardrobe and low light, and she said yes to all of that stuff. I really trusted her, and she took a bigger leap of faith with me because I was so untested. I found this really weird window at an unexpected network. It was a chance to make the show exactly the way I wanted to make it.
The Rachel character, played by Shiri Appleby, comes off as this master manipulator who can make turn these contestants into shrill neurotics. Why are TV critics calling her a feminist?
That’s a good question. We made a very concerted effort to put the character’s conflicts on her chest in the first episode and the first scene where you ever meet her. She’s wearing a t-shirt that says “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” The truth is that she’s a fallen feminist. She’s wearing a t-shirt from college that she’s probably washed 300 times. She’s hanging onto old ideals and an old identity that doesn’t really function anymore. She has sold her soul to the devil and is trying to crawl back out of that hole.
She’s a very skilled manipulator. Are you partly trying to make it unclear when she’s in manipulation mode?
A huge part of the show is to make the audience feel as confused about Rachel as she does. She doesn’t know who she is. It changes from hour to hour. That’s part of her becoming an adult with an identity. We all have some cognitive dissonance between who we think we are and who we actually are.
Shiri does a really good job with a character that I suspect doesn’t make a lot of sense on the page — I can imagine that being confusing for her.
That’s right. Shiri and I have spent hours and hours and hours talking about this character. Every time a script comes out, we have the meeting where she asks, “OK, I’ve read the words, but what is actually going on?” There are at least three layers to every Rachel scene — what she thinks she’s doing, what other people think she’s doing, and what she’s actually doing.
The show starts out as a satire with an attitude and gradually gets darker. Was that a function of finding the tone, or did you want to take it through a few layers of hell as it moves forward?
The intention was always to get down to the bowels of hell. We wanted the show to be like a cotton candy confection with a really dark center and then let the show get darker from there.
You’re dealing with heavy stuff on the show like spousal abuse and date rape.
We felt like the only way to get people talking about date rape and spousal abuse was to make it fun.
[Laughs.] No, I mean Marti [Noxon] and I take that stuff as seriously as anyone. We’re both active, living feminists and care quite a bit about those issues, but we also understand entertainment and know that the best way to get people talking about it is to put it in a dramatized context where people can relate to it. That’s the point, to me, of making television.
There’s some weird sex stuff in the series, particularly at the end of Episode 4. I won’t spoil the scene, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it. What was that about?
We have a character on the show, Adam [Freddie Stroma], who is sort of a beautiful, British ken doll. The idea of him selling his sexuality as much as any of the women is pretty important. As much as we’re feminists writing the show, we’re actually humanists. We really endeavored to give men on the show a little bit of the treatment that fat women get a lot — reducing them to their looks and not giving them a lot of depth — but at the same time we actually have compassion for them and develop them into real people. The idea that a guy would be forced to trade on his sexuality as much as a woman might be was interesting to us.
Craig Bierko is almost unrecognizable. Did he gain weight for the show?
He did, yeah. Casting that role was interesting. We were looking for a leading man gone to seed — a good-looking guy who had just quit giving a shit — so he put on weight for the role.
The show has gotten great reviews and has been mentioned favorably in a lot of places, but the ratings haven’t been great. Do you have a theory on that?
I think re-branding is always a little tricky. We’re talking to an audience that is new to Lifetime, and people are still finding the show. The audience that is responding to the show is more of a binge-watching-on-Netflix audience, so that’s a huge challenge for the conventional ratings system.
Is that how you watch TV?
I’ve never had a TV. I watch everything on my laptop. And that’s true of just about everyone I know.
So you’d probably have trouble finding this show yourself.
I found an opportunity in a really unexpected place to make a show that I’m really proud of, but there’s a huge quandary about getting to people the way they like to watch television. We do love the week-to-week aspect of it — the live-tweeting and the conversation. Even though I love binge-watching, that gets lost in the binge-watching culture because you don’t have the water cooler moment where people can talk about things online in real time.
There is a scene in the episode that airs Monday July 6 that is going to be a jaw-dropper.
Have you seen it yet?
No. Lifetime’s publicists wouldn’t show me that episode. They wouldn’t even tell me what it is.
I’ll say this: You won’t believe we go there. It’s farther than you could imagine Lifetime or the show going.
Is it a sex thing?
It’s not really a sex thing, but it’s something that could really spark conversation about the real-world impact of this kind of television.
Is it kind of like the Broad City pegging episode?
[Laughs.] I don’t think so, but I love Broad City.
Scott Porch writes about pop culture, politics and history. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Beast and has written for The Atlantic, Esquire, The FADER, Maxim, Politico Magazine, and Salon.