Rukeyser / Getty Images
UnReal has been exploring that gray line between consent and assault since it exploded onto the scene in 2015.
Lifetime’s first hit scripted series, UnReal is a prickly examination of the behind-the-scenes machinations that goes into making the glossy heightened drama of a Bachelor-inspired reality show. Inspired by the real-life experiences of co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s time working on The Bachelor, UnReal tapped into the zeitgeist of the nu feminist movement. Equal pay. Power. Consent. Female anti-heroes. And now, as the series heads into its third season, its themes are more relevant than ever.
But it was almost by accident that UnReal has kept finding itself at the center of the most topical cultural conversations. In season two, it made history by featuring a black suitor — even before The Bachelor cast their first black Bachelor. As season two started airing, the Black Lives Matter movement had started to reach its crest. And now, season three will air its most female-centric season yet — a feminist suitress, a Hillary Clinton-inspired storyline — at the height of the Me Too and Time’s Up movement.
Showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, who takes over from season two showrunner Carol Barbee, spoke to us in an interview about how Hillary Clinton and gender politics played a part in season three.
For its past two seasons, UnReal has been coincidentally timely. First with the black suitor during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, now with the suitress during the Me Too movement. Do you feel pressure to reflect current events or do you take that into account when writing the show?
Well, we were really ahead of it on this one. Because we had started writing season three and I had pitched this idea of the feminist suitress to the network, that was before Donald Trump was elected president. It was a time when everyone thought that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States. So some of the issues about gender politics that we were getting into, there was a little bit of concern of “would they still be relevant” if Hillary Clinton was going to be president and if we were on the cusp of this bright new future where women would be empowered in some way. Which was a wonderfully optimistic view of how the world would have been if Hillary Clinton won the election.
We had this whole season edited and in the can before the Me Too movement had a hashtag, before any of these conversations about Time’s Up came into the culture. I wish we could say that we could feel these things were happening, that this was a change coming, but we had no idea. These were issues that we felt as women — and we have men on our writing staff too, so just as human beings really — about things we had experienced in Hollywood. So the fact that the season is coming out now feels incredibly fortuitous and it’s so much part of the conversation now.
So we also have just finished shooting season four now. And we had pitched that before these broader conversations happened. So I don’t feel like we can talk about what’s in the culture because we’re so far ahead from where we’re airing.
We just try write from a very personal place and what we feel very strongly as women, but also to write from a truthful, emotional, and psychological place for Quinn and Rachel.
Can you give us a hint of what season four will entail?
First of all the format is Everlasting All-Stars, so we do have some fan favorites back. And I can say in one case of being influenced by the culture: I don’t watch The Bachelor but there are some things that annoy me enough that I do hear about them. And one of them was the scandal that happened on Bachelor in Paradise where one of the producers made a complaint and they shut down filming. And I found that shocking, really, because that show had been on the air for something like 20 seasons. We hear from a lot of people on reality television that UnReal is a very accurate depiction of what goes on there. So to me, that means that terrible, terrible things have happened along the way yet no one has ever made a complaint.
The fact that the story changed, was she too drunk to consent? Was she actually okay? Should they have stepped in? Was there any wrongdoing or not? And also the fact that no press outlet has, to my knowledge, found this producer who made this complaint and talked to them. And so, was it all just a big publicity stunt? No one really knows for sure, but the whole thing was really fascinating to me, and that did become part of the inspiration for the fourths season.
So season four will really focus on the ideas of Me Too and consent, more so than season three?
Well, coincidentally season three really is Rachel Goldberg’s hashtag Me Too moment. At the end of season two, she reveals to Coleman that she had been raped by one of her mother’s patients when she was 12-years-old. And so this season, Quinn has gotten what she calls “a real-ass shrink” in Dr. Simon. She’s brought him in really as a safety net for Rachel because she knows she needs Rachel to come back to work. And yet she knows that Rachel has been committed to a mental institution and her boyfriend dies in a terrible car accident, so she’s right that Rachel needs a safety net. But Dr. Simon goes much further than that and he gets Rachel to confront what is her own personal responsibility in terms of what Jeremy did to Coleman and Yael. Even if she didn’t know what he was going to do or how far he was would go, she has to look at whether she was venting to him as she claims, or whether she was producing him to an extent. And because she’s Rachel Goldberg, she doesn’t go about this in a straight ahead, reasonable way, but it is her attempt to confront what happened to her and how her family dealt with it, and try to really pull herself out of that.
So it sounds like season three will be dealing more with mental illness, which the show has kind of skirted against before.
“What’s wrong with Rachel Goldberg?” is a question that we’ve been asking since season one, and is anything wrong with her? We met her mother very early on, and meeting her really has given insight into Rachel and why she would end up in a place like Everlasting, why her relationship with Quinn might feel familiar in a way, and why Quinn might be a better mother in a way.
But I think that we’ve left it up to the audience to decide, is there something wrong with her, or is her mother manipulating her and drugging her and labeling her, does she need real help, or is she somewhere in the middle? This season we definitely go down a road with her as she tries to unravel what’s quote-unquote wrong with her. And I think the answers that we come to in terms of “What’s wrong with Rachel Goldberg?” are that it’s never just one thing. It’s complicated. We often think “If I just fix this one thing about me” then everything would be okay, and that doesn’t seem to be the way that life really works.
Speaking of Rachel and Quinn, season two was criticized a bit for taking the focus away from this compelling relationship between Rachel and Quinn and tacking on a few too many over-the-top storylines. Will we see a return to the Rachel and Quinn dynamic that made season one so great?
I think there were some big swings that were taken in terms of the story and I admire that. But to me, I just felt that we hadn’t had the time to sit with those big plot points in an emotional or psychological way, and the consequences and effects of what happened. That was a big part of what I wanted to do going into season three, is I wanted to take that time to really sit with those big moments that had happened, and not just pretend that they hadn’t happened, or ignore them. Certainly, the idea for the feminist suitress was really important in terms of what we wanted to explore in terms of gender politics. And the feminist suitress becomes in a way an avatar for Rachel and Quinn to project their own issues about being strong, successful, but still single women onto her, and work out their issues that way.
Tell me a little about the female suitress. How does she shake things up at Everlasting?
For the first time, there’s somebody there who is honestly there to find a partner, in her case, a husband. It’s a very familiar predicament that I know personally, and that a lot of women deal with, is that the farther you climb up at work, often times the harder it is to find a man. And why is that, that she could be beautiful, smart, sexy, successful, but still single?
And with the election happening, I feel that Hillary Clinton faced a huge amount of vitriol on the campaign trail. And there’s a line in the first episode where Rachel tells Serena, “You’re pretty, smart, successful, half of America already hates you.” And I think that’s really true there’s nothing more frightening to a great portion of our country than a smart, powerful woman. And that’s so sad and so maddening.
To a lot of women, it’s also confusing the predicament we’re in because we’re encouraged to be really strong at work: to demand equal pay, to take your seat at the table, lean in, reclaim your time, and shatter those glass ceilings, and all of that. And yet when we go on a date, we’re supposed to transform into this creature who is a much more demure, traditional definition of femininity. And that’s hard to do, and confusing to know who am I supposed to be, and how I’m supposed to be. And Serena falls prey to that as well, because she has her own vulnerabilities and insecurities. And another part of what they’re exploring is, who is the right partner for a woman like that? Should she be with a sort of alpha male with whom she would be part of a power couple? Or should she with more of a beta guy where she can be the star at work, but he can stay at home and take care of the kids. And I think these are interesting questions particularly now when women oftentimes are the primary breadwinner in a family. It’s hard to figure out what’s the best way to arrange your family, and I think there’s never anyone answer, but it’s interesting to look at these questions.
So do you deal then, with the double standard that real-life Bachelorettes have to face? For example, there was Kaitlyn Bristowe, who was slut-shamed for sleeping with a suitor early on in the season.
I did not know about that, but I think that’s something that women, in general, have to deal with. You know we’re supposed to not let the guy have sex with you right away, be chaste, say no, give in at a certain point. I think these are the things that are coming up now while we’re talking about consent, which is a great conversation to be having. But until we change that framework where women are told you’re supposed to resist, and the man is supposed to persist, and then eventually you find your way to some kind of consensual sex, I think that’s very confusing for parties to navigate.
Is there anything else you want to tease about season three and four of UnReal?
On the Quinn storyline, it’s an interesting season for her. Because at the end of season two, she found out she couldn’t have kids and pre-emptively broke up with her boyfriend. And all of that is kind of fine when your career is going well, because Quinn so self-identifies that way. But when we find her at the beginning of season three, because the show has been put on hiatus for six months, her reputation has really taken a hit — as happens for women, it’s much harder for women to come back from a scandal or a flop than it is for men. So we see this personal desperation behind Quinn’s need to get the show back up and running and get her empire back. And all of that is made more complicated by Chet now having a 24-year-old swimsuit model girlfriend. And he says, “It’s just easier, she’s just easier.” So there’s this implication that who Quinn is as a person was in some way responsible for their relationship not going well, and that’s so unfair and maddening. So we see Quinn acting out in a way that she’s never acted out before. But even at the end of the season she has to figure out if her empire is enough or whether she does need some kind of human connection beyond her relationship with Rachel. And Chet has to come to figure out whether easy is in fact what he wants. So everybody is going through these personal struggles that all relate to the central things in terms of gender politics and what it means to be a woman today.
The series won acclaim for Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s collaboration in its first season — now that Noxon has stepped down from UnReal and Shapiro is taking on other responsibilities with her A+E studios deal, how is running the show without its original creators on board as much as before?
Sarah is definitely still totally involved. In season one, Sarah and Marti wrote the pilot together and Marti brought me on to sort of run the show when she wasn’t around. Even then she had two shows on the air, she had Girlfriends Guide to Divorce on the air.
I’d been writing and rewriting for both seasons, but I definitely did have to prove myself to the studio and the network, and finally got the chance to be the showrunner in season three. But Sarah and I still work very closely together, we sat down before we came in the writer’s room to talk about what we thought worked and what didn’t work in the seasons before, and what we were interested in addressing thematically. And Marti now has, I don’t know, 4 or 5 shows on the air now, it’s incredible.
It’s really wonderful after proving myself and proving myself, especially as a writer, to have the chance to make a decision in season three, and make a decision about what the story and the characters would be. Because UnReal, it’s unique in the sense that every season is almost like writing a new pilot because there’s a completely different cast of characters on Everlasting and different story you’re telling with different themes, so there’s big decisions you have to make with what you’re doing.
You’ve written about being the lone woman in a male-dominated writer’s room. How has it been working in UnReal’s majority-female writer’s room?
For season four 50-50, and season three we were 5 women and 3 men, so we’re pretty close to equal time and equal footing. Which is great, it’s great to have equal time and equal footing.
But what’s most exciting to me is I have the ability to tell stories of women who feel real to me, and stories that feel real and personal to me. I remember trying to pitch those stories on other shows, and you would just get laughed at. That’s to me is the most exciting thing about this moment that we’re having in Hollywood right now. Because to me, it’s more about just creating a safe environment for everyone at work, though that’s certainly a huge important step that’s happening right now. It’s also about looking at the sort of internalized sexism and the unconscious bias that exists that is preventing women from creating and producing more shows. And we need to get more voices out there so we have more examples of complicated, real, flawed women, stories that really resonate with audiences.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Hoai-Tran is a pop culture journalist and news writer at SlashFilm who loves superheroes, TV, movies, and Jeff Goldblum memes. She is currently based in Washington, D.C.
Follow Hoai-Tran on Twitter: @htranbui
Hoai-Tran Bui | Contributor