UnREAL, a new series on Lifetime, is not about The Bachelor. The drama explores the making of a dating competition show, Everlasting, where wannabe wives live together in a mansion while duking it out for the heart of one male suitor. This suitor thins the herd of potential Mrs. Suitors in elaborate, rigid ceremonies, where women are either invited to “continue on this journey” or get kicked to the curb, where a limo is waiting to escort them back to obscurity.
So Everlasting is not The Bachelor. Except it is, obviously, The Bachelor.
But most of UnREAL is not about the show-within-the-show but the show-behind-the-show: the desperate, hungry, all-seeing producers who manage the cast members’ every waking moment. No backstory is too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of “good TV.” Cash bonuses get handed out like gold stars to scrappy staffers who can land tears, 9–1–1 calls, nudity, and other ratings-friendly scandals.
Producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is all grime, exhaustion and “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts next to the glittery, evening-gowned, aspiring wives of Everlasting. She has what could be called the Walter White Problem: she excels at a job at which no decent person would ever want to excel. Rachel is a master manipulator, bending the fragile psyches of the female competitors until they snap in two. In an appropriate karmic twist, Rachel is herself being manipulated by her boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), who strategically withholds and grants her approval onto her overworked, stressed-out underlings.
UnREAL is the product of two co-creators: Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Mad Men, and many, many more) and co-creator Sarah Gertude Shapiro. Shapiro worked on The Bachelor for nine seasons. Her misery was so intense that, in 2005, she told her boss she was contemplating suicide; this dire admission released Shapiro from her contract, and also from the state of California, as assurance that she wouldn’t turn around and work for a competing show. Shapiro drove to Portland, Oregon, “on the verge of mental collapse,” to lay low. But she quickly got back into filmmaking and wrote and directed Sequin Raze, the short that served as the basis for UnREAL.
UnREAL is dark, unnerving and excellent. It challenges all the ideas audiences hold about romance-reality shows and the people who participate in them: that contestants are fame-hungry monsters who know exactly what they signed up for; that, under the same circumstances, we would never make the same dumb choices they do; that there are ethical lines we will not cross, even if we are broke or desperate or both. To go behind the scenes of this behind-the-scenes series, I spoke with Shapiro by phone.
Let’s go over your background and how you wound up working on The Bachelor in the first place.
I had come out to L.A. to make independent films, and hopefully important feminist films. I filled out all my paperwork, because I was 22 and thought it was fine to be filling out my W9 at a coffee shop. They handed me a manila envelope and I just signed everything and was like, “Okay!”
And you worked on a reality show, High School Reunion, and then they called you to work on The Bachelor.
When they asked about the other show, I said no immediately. “I’m a feminist, you don’t want me, it’s going to be a nightmare.” I did not skip a beat. It was like: absolutely not. But it turned out I’d agreed to work on any show, in perpetuity, throughout the known universe. If they settled on Mars, I’d have to go with them.
One thing I find really compelling about UnREAL is that Rachel, the producer, is this self-proclaimed feminist who seems to hate her job, and yet she is also incredibly good at her job. Is there a part of her that likes it, because it is so satisfying to excel at something? Or is it horrifying to her that she is outstanding at what amounts to manipulating the emotions of other people?
I think, in exploring some of these challenges and moral quandaries and stuff, I’ve had a variety of day jobs: in fashion, advertising, and reality TV. The experiences in UnREAL come from all of those jobs. What I really had to ask myself was, in all of these situations, there has to be something I’m getting out of it. I have to admit there’s something I’m getting out of it. There’s a reason why I’m doing it. So it’s important in developing the characters on UnREAL, I think about those issues. It feels really good to have a place to be, to be good at something, to get rewarded for something. There may be a sick satisfaction in taking down the prom queen. When I worked in fashion and advertising, too, and you’re casting, to suddenly be the person in the power seat, with a lot of power over really hot, super-popular girls, there might be something in there that I’ve had to think about a bit. Just to have power.
You would be driven crazy by the princess fantasy if you actually believed in it.
I’ve had interesting experiences with all my jobs. I come from a very academic family with a lot of accomplished, super-smart people, and I’d go home to family functions and everyone would want to talk to me instead of my sister who was in the Peace Corps. People were fascinated to know everything about my job. So I was getting a lot of attention about that.
What do you think it is about working on a romance reality show in particular that is so draining for a producer? I imagine that all these reality show gigs are similar in structure — crazy hours, managing pseudo-celebrities, lots of editing — but is there something especially difficult about the cognitive dissonance between the behind-the-scenes work and the on-screen love fantasy that made that work extra-grueling for you?
Absolutely. I’ve said before, it’s like a vegan working in a slaughterhouse. I keep diving into that. I keep finding myself in the belly of the beast, really navigating these worlds in confrontational and compromising ways. It’s complicated. Some of those decisions are very conscious on my part: when I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, a lot of my friends pursued more prestigious, artistic paths… And I was always more oriented towards working within the machine to change it, to make things that would be seen by a lot of people, to learn how to navigate those worlds.
So I think that juxtaposition, we open UnREAL with it. Princesses, ponies, blah, blah, it’s all a bunch of bullshit. And the boss of that show getting fucked over a desk by a married man, while she’s producing old-fashioned, chivalrous romance, the only way you can survive is to be completely cynical. You would be driven crazy by the princess fantasy if you actually believed in it. So that core question of that cognitive dissonance, that is maybe what all of UnREAL is about: how we reconcile, as strong, working women, that we have a weird, genetic disposition toward the princess fantasy? How do we navigate that with ambition and also wanting to be taken care of?
I’ve read that most of the audience for The Bachelor are high-income, well-educated women.
I think of it as a little bit of an escape. Just to imagine that the world is that simple: that if you’re pretty enough and skinny enough, things are fine. And shows like this give structure to something that’s really unknowable and probably the most anxiety-producing factor in modern life. It’s so appealing because it’s so out of control, and it’s so scary.
Were you worried at all about ABC powers-that-be, or any of your former Bachelor colleagues, lashing out at you for what UnREAL says about that world?
The thing that was super-important in the writers room is that it’s 100 percent a fiction show. It’s set in a world that there’s a lot of shorthand for, but in terms of actual events, it’s 100 percent fiction. So in that way, it wasn’t a concern. I also feel like there are so many shows like [The Bachelor] now, and the genre is so massive, it almost feels like it doesn’t really matter. It could be Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? or Flavor of Love. And it’s not a takedown; that’s not our aim. And neither is a spoof. It’s a dramatic television show with a character in conflict. It’s not that literal.
I was taken aback by how dark the tone of UnREAL is. It’s relentlessly brutal, and not in a campy or winking way at all, which was surprising just because the show is on Lifetime. This is not the kind of material I think people expect from that network. How did UnREAL land at Lifetime? Were you nervous at all about having to compromise your vision to fit with the Lifetime brand?
When I was selling the show, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t know anyone. I was introduced to Nina Lederman, the president of Lifetime, and I pitched the show and she pretty much bought it in the room, and I was really confused about what to do. I’d thought, I’ll sell it to HBO or Netflix or Amazon. The short [Sequin Raze] had already gotten into SXSW, and those are more the crowds I run with. But it’s different from a verbal pitch because the short existed. So rather than pretending we were on the same page, we were looking at the same thing, and Nina assured me that she wanted it to be that dark: to look and feel the same way.
It was a huge leap of faith for me. We can make a show together, but do you understand that I am deeply broken and incapable of doing something that isn’t sarcastic and dark and gnarly? So I took a huge leap of faith. But Nina took a huge leap of faith on me, because I was totally untested. Lifetime is interested in shifting what they’re doing; they want to move into the premium cable space. I think it’s also really interesting to be one of the shows that’s doing that for them, because everything is adjusting overnight.
Speaking of work relationships, I want to talk about the dynamic between Rachel and her boss, Quinn. What they have is both supportive and codependent but also very toxic and unfair, with Quinn holding all this power and Rachel kind of forced to be at Quinn’s disposal.
What was great about writing that dynamic was, once we got into the writers room, every person in that room had had that boss. It’s such a common trope, I think, especially in Hollywood. And also really understand that Quinn wants to take care of Rachel; she thinks she’s mentoring her and that Rachel is going to be her in five years and she’s found her protégé.
The deadly combination is that Rachel really doesn’t have a mom, so she really needs the support of Quinn, and Quinn wants her to use her empathy and her intelligence for certain purposes. Rachel is really smart and good at reading people, and she just needs approval. In this huge, postmodern, crazy world where we’re all adrift, any kind of structure that lets you know where you’re supposed to be is good.
Rachel has this crisis of conscience every time she gets offered a cash bonus for messing with the contestants’ minds: playing on their personal histories to make them cry or fight on camera, withholding information to get an episode in before cluing in a contestant to the state of her dad’s illness, that sort of thing. And I read in another interview that in college, you were in a feminist seminar “debating how much it would cost to sell your soul. And I’d always say, like, $50 million. And you find out it’s actually just a paycheck.”
That particular concept was more for me, in terms of, there has been chatter about millennials being post-moral, that morality is fluid, that to have principles is quaint and cute but not very relevant. I raised myself in a way where I was very moral, and when, theoretically thinking about the idea, “What would it take for me to do something horrible to another person? How much would you have to pay me?” I used to think it was $50 million. I thought I was so steadfast and clear and my soul was not for sale. And what was really astounding and shocking to me, in all my jobs at certain times, was the cost of my soul was a paycheck, and not even a big one. Where I thought it was 50 million, it was 1500 dollars a week.
I’m fascinated by the people who choose to be on these shows — and the fictional characters you’ve written who signed up for Everlasting — because they’re all in a post-reality-TV generation. They must know what they’re getting into; and yet, you make the case in UnREAL that even the supposedly savvy contestants are in way over their head. Can anyone be adequately prepared to be cast on a reality show?
Our characters are like, “Fuck them, they know what they signed up for.” That is the mentality. And what UnREAL explores is: there’s no way they could know what they signed up for.
One thing that’s really important to us, audiences at home, and our characters like Quinn, they’re like, “Fuck them, they know what they signed up for.” That is the mentality. And what UnREAL explores is: there’s no way they could know what they signed up for. Even if they think they could beat the game, they can’t beat the game because the game is so powerful. And people coming in now are already basically authors of their own lives because of social media. They’re so used to defining their identity for themselves. The power struggle between contestants and producers — because people are so used to controlling the narrative, editing and producing themselves, and someone else is deciding who you are, what you eat, where you go — it’s basically a huge control thing. There’s one part where we take a very cynical look at that, and another time we look at it from a compassionate place.
One element of that experience UnREAL highlighted for me is how completely isolated these women are. Like in Sequin Raze, when Jessica tells a producer, “I’ve been counting my eyelashes for fun,” because it is so boring and lonely in the house.
Think about being without your phone or the internet for eight weeks in a house with other women. You cook and workout and talk and talk and talk. You try and get away, it’s crazy. And that’s a big part of why the women can become obsessed with one of the guys, because it’s all they have to talk about, and it’s the only way out. They’re all in jail, and their captor is this guy who can take them on fun dates and adventures.
Do you think any of these women — either in real life or in Everlasting — really believe they could fall in love on TV?
I think a lot of them on UnREAL, which is maybe a little innocent in some ways, because part of it is really smart, beautiful girls from small towns often have really small dating pools, and they are truly excited to meet someone they wouldn’t ordinarily meet. For Anna, the lawyer from Atlanta who has been taking care of her sick dad and hasn’t had a lot of a life, for her, being introduced to a smart, successful guy who she would never otherwise meet is exciting in a genuine way. The other thing is that straightforward cynicism is really lazy and bad writing. Saying “fuck all these bitches, they’re all fake,” it’s a really bad story. We really believe people want to find love, and people, in a sick way, think it could happen here. For small town girls, this is like a nationally-televised personal ad. Maybe this isn’t the guy, but they really do want to find a great guy.
UnREAL airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. Episodes are streaming here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.