UnREAL premieres Monday, June 1 at 10/9CT on Lifetime.
Can you be a feminist and still love The Bachelor?
Better question: Can you be a feminist and admit to loving The Bachelor?
Best question of all: Can you be a feminist and actually work on The Bachelor?
It’s a lot to digest — just ask writer/producer/director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. When Shapiro was in her early twenties, she spent a few years working as a producer on ABC’s reality behemoth during its fourth and fifth seasons (that’s the disastrous “Bob and Estella” and “Jesse and Jessica” for those of you keeping score). Turning fragments of the experience into the jaw-dropping 2013 short film Sequin Raze, starring Ashley Williams as an emotionally shredded producer who is a master at manipulating the fragile love-seekers on her reality dating competition, Shapiro knew she still had much more story to tell.
Flash forward to a Pasadena hotel suite in January, where Shapiro sits companionably next to veteran television writer/producer Marti Noxon, her co-creator of Lifetime’s UnREAL. The whip-smart and funny new dramedy stars a fearless Shiri Appleby as Rachel, a young producer from a troubled background who finds her calling and a de facto — and equally dysfunctional — family on the set of the Bachelor-esque dating show Everlasting.
Tasked with ensuring juicy storylines by earning the contestants’ trust, even as she prods deep-seated vulnerabilities unearthed by the show’s psychologist, Rachel is undone by a humiliating meltdown of her own. But when her plans for a nobler life don’t quite pan out, Rachel returns to the Everlasting fold — and the tutelage of pitiless EP Quinn King (a deliciously complex Constance Zimmer).
Meeting with Shapiro after falling in love with Sequin Raze, Noxon says the pair bonded instantly (so much so that Shapiro still tears up about it as we chat) over the potential of Sequin’s story as a series and the kind of flawed characters they wanted to populate it.
“I had a friend who was a casting person for reality television and she told me how they actually seek out the most fragile, the most naive — people who might not be able to handle it or people who have explosive tempers,” says Noxon of a topic unflinchingly fleshed out in UnREAL. “Being good at casting those shows is about getting drama — not great contestants.”
“There’s a part of Rachel that I think wants to be Quinn and a part of her that’s mad that she wants to be Quinn — and then a part of her that definitely doesn’t,” says Appleby (Girls). “She’s at that stage where she’s just trying to really figure out who she is and what she wants her life to be and how she can reconcile that with what she happens to be good at — and she happens to be very good at producing reality television. It really makes her sick and crazy.”
“It was a fascinating struggle every day,” says Zimmer (House of Cards), whose Quinn is nursing emotional tender spots that belie her tough-cookie persona. “We would have scenes together where I was like, ‘Don’t look at me, because I will start crying!’ What I always felt Quinn was trying to do for Rachel was, ‘This might hurt now, but this is going to help you later.’”
Shapiro says the particular complexities of women making a living demeaning other women compelled her and Noxon to “put a fatwa” on anything that resembled spoof or satire. “There is a brutality to it, woman-on-woman psychological violence,” she explains. “And how damaging it is not just to the people who make it, but to the people who consume it? The idea of sitting on your couch eating pizza, saying, ‘She looks fat!’ — when you turn around and look in the mirror, what is that doing to you? If you are judging other women that harshly inadvertently, you will turn it on yourself.”
Which is why, Noxon says, women need to give their own determination to achieve workplace stardom and a fairy tale of a personal life a reality check now and then.
“That’s why it is so important to keep talking about what happens after the ‘happily ever after’ — we see that with all these competition dating shows; most of the time it was all just for show,” she explains. “But it still sucks you in. I watched The Bachelor in preparation for this and I got completely invested in this guy who was just a dope! Seriously! I was like, ‘Would he love me? Could I ever win?’”
UnREAL airs Mondays at 10/9CT beginning June 1 on Lifetime.