Today marks the premiere of a network-changing show. Just like AMC reinvented themselves with Mad Men, or Manhattan has relaunched WGN as a independent content source, Lifetime takes a big chance and makes a big change with UnREAL, a gritty scripted show about the day-to-day in the trenches of working in ‘reality,’ in this case, a faux ‘Bachelor’ show. The program, created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, based on Shapiro’s 2013 short SEQUIN RAZE, is basically the best new thing I’ve seen on television since Silicon Valley. The writing is smart, quick and brutal, the characters full of seasons-potential depth and individuality, and the setting is so fresh and littered of minefields, it’s the perfect storm of a show that is instantly enjoyable and yet bursting with potential.
When I saw SEQUIN RAZE at SXSW in 2013, I walked right up to Shapiro after the screening and told her this had to be a series. No one has ever made a series that let viewers behind the curtains of reality television. I’ve worked a few days on those sets, they are rife with grudges and back-stabbing, as much as viewers see in the front of the camera in the final product. It’s never glorious to be a Production Assistant but you do get to witness every facet of soul-sucking that happens to get these shows made. SEQUIN RAZE captured the way good people are trapped by their job and find themselves having to make really horrible choices. The glamour of something like Entourage is fine, but it’s the people with the headsets that drive what’s on screen, and that’s the show I wanted to see. Plus, the premise of doing a ‘Bachelor’ type series allowed a new group of characters to come in every year and join the established ensemble, every season would have an obvious arc. Of course, when I babbled all this at Shapiro in 2013, she already knew. In fact, she was already working with Lifetime to turn SEQUIN RAZE into UnREAL.
UnREAL is without a doubt, to this observer, the best thing that has every played on Lifetime. It represents a real leap into the kind of original and ground-breaking programming that defines great television, and we are in the era of great television. I’ve literally been desperate for the show to debut so I can see episode four (I still have to wait three weeks, but at least I can rewatch the first three with my wife). The characters, especially Appleby’s Rachel, have next to no filter, and feel freshly plucked out of their world, fully formed. There are so many ins and outs in making a show like ‘Everlasting,’ the audience will be treated to the disreality of reality tv, revealing methods and even more dubious methodology. UnREAL may even deliver a death blow to the dirge of programming that it exposes, especially a majority of the crap that runs on sister network A+E, which is about as far from ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’ as programming can be. I think Lifetime’s gamble of UnREAL is courageous and smart. The show is a success already, because it’s frickin’ genius, but the real test will be if Lifetime can get people to come to a network for a show that doesn’t feel like any of its other shows, and to get already committed Lifetime viewers to hang with something out of their comfort zone. Oh, and also to get men to watch, because this is a great show with strong, powerful and sexy women, one that could easily live on Showtime or HBO but just happens to be on Lifetime.
I had a chance to chat with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro about the show a few weeks ago, and I could barely contain my excitement for UnREAL.
BEARS: So, I assume you have a background in reality television.
SHAPIRO: I do have a background in reality television. It was sort of one of many day jobs I had in my early 20s, yeah. I worked in advertising and was on staff on reality TV and was writing all the time on the side. So this has been like ten years in the making kind of thing.
BEARS: Were there bits of things that you saw that you knew you had to fit in UnREAL somehow, like little things that resonated several years later that you knew you had to include now that you had the chance?
And in all of these gigs I sort of found myself like, really shockingly, doing things that were so drastically opposed to who I was, and it had only taken a paycheck. It wasn’t even like somebody paid me a million dollars to do something horrible, I just had to pay the rent. So, I think, for me, like that crisis of conscience and trying to be a human being that you can live with, you know, figuring out how to live with yourself as a grown-up, is really the nexus of this show, that moment of crisis.
And, I also feel like there’s a millennial like, post-ethic thing, that I’ve thought a lot about. The world has gotten so – I think with reality TV – it’s gotten so self-referential and so devoid of humanity and morals in some way. Obsessive people documenting themselves all the time and living their life like they’re on camera, – the question for me is like, does morality even exist? Do my ideals even matter? Like, there’s a simple thing of irony, isn’t this ironic that I’m a feminist doing all these horrible things to women?
BEARS: Yeah, it’s interesting how terrible these people have to be, and yet you still have to make them likeable characters so people want to tune into the show each week. How do you balance that in the writing making sure people want to come back to this cynical world?
SHAPIRO: I think a lot of it’s in the writing but another really large part of it was in the casting. Casting both Constance and Shiri, they’re wonderful human beings and that shines through no matter what. Rachel, in terms of, what we talked about in the writer’s room, is her central character conflict which is she’s a really good person doing really bad things. It doesn’t work if she’s just evil, and a really wonderful thing about casting Shiri is that she is a wonderful person and I think it shines through and she gives us, I feel like a lot of room to have compassion for Rachel and to relate to Rachel. She’s really lying to herself. She’s trying not to, but you know, after awhile there’s like this idea of who you are, and then there’s the fact of what you do 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that’s actually who you are, that’s what she’s doing. So, I think it’s a combination of writing and casting.
BEARS: Interesting, I’ve only seen first 3 episodes, but it has this really amazing arc for Rachel as a character. She has this chip on her shoulder. In her time away, has decided that she’s better than this, and by the end of the 3rd episode she’s sitting on the couch with the main producer, making her peace with it. So knowing that now, where does she go (don’t tell me) but conceptually, this is already a big leap for the character, or almost a regression. Plus in that episode we get our first glimpse of her parents, who are really just as awful as anyone on the show.
SHAPIRO: We really talked about it like ‘good mommy, bad mommy.’ And the thing is like, she doesn’t really have a relationship with her mom, or not a functional one. And she doesn’t have a lot of like, friendships or relationships outside the show. And she doesn’t have a home. She doesn’t have anywhere to fucking be, except for at work. And so for her emotional survival, she’s gotta be where she belongs and where she has a purpose. And we talk about Quinn very much as her mother, as one of the roles. As somebody who tells her what to do, tells her when she’s good and bad, gives her shelter, gives her food, gives her money, promotes her, pats her on the head, all those things, and she doesn’t get that from anyone else, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. And I feel like everyone in the writer’s room [could]relate to that at some point, because to be in Hollywood you kind of have to be a work-a-holic. And in your early 20s, you especially have to bust ass. Your work family is your family, you don’t really have a lot else going on, often. I think that Rachel was a big question that loomed large in the writer’s room every time we broke a story “Well, where else would Rachel go?” It’s like, “who would she be?” If she didn’t do this, what, is she gonna go be a novelist? Who does that person become? The person who’s really manipulative, super charming, really smart, kind of savvy? The real question is, is she gonna become the Constance character? In five years, does Rachel quit? Is she gonna get promoted, is she gonna make a different choice? Again, in the writer’s room, everyone could relate to that moment in your early 20s, mid 20s, where you’re sort of like, “what am I doing?”
SHAPIRO: One thing I really admire about reality crews is that, in my experience, they’re often the kids who couldn’t afford to go to film school. You have to be sort of independently funded to be in Indie filmmaking at this point. So, people who need to have a job, need to get a job, often work in reality TV. But there are some really smart, really cool people working on those shows, just making their way. And they have dreams of doing, you know, doing different things, or doing documentaries. There’s a lot of documentary people who end up in realities. And, it’s like, they’re not bad people, they’re doing a job and they’re working hard, but after awhile, you know, you’re doing pretty shitty things.
BEARS: Right, well let’s talk about Rachel. She’s got all this backstory of things she did on the show in the past, she’s got this relationship with her parents. I think you did a really good job letting that all out bit by bit. How did you plan the show in terms of what to reveal when?
SHAPIRO: We talked a lot about her having a deal with the devil and it being a little Faustian, you know? And it’s her decline into depravity, I guess. But also, that it’s not interesting unless we see her struggle. So, we have to believe that Rachel really wants to be better than she is. She’s the one we get attached to, she’s almost the conscience of America, I guess? We talked a lot too about reality TV being frivolous fun and disposable entertainment, but when you actually had to grapple with it having real impact on people’s lives, that’s sort of the thing that we don’t want to look at. So we put it in the package of Rachel so it’s a very like a Trojan horse. It’s a very acceptable person to look at and sort of watch her dealing with ‘is this right or is this wrong?’ Rachel has a really strong arc for the first season.
BEARS: So, UnREAL started as a very awesome short film. Tell me a little about taking the ideas that started in the short film and doing the conversion into a long series. How did you track through what you wanted to keep and how you wanted to structure it?
SHAPIRO:The short film, what’s interesting with that is that it’s one 20-minute scene, and the thing that blew my mind about turning it into an hour-long drama was just the demands for plot. It’s such a plot-hungry monster.The great thing is there’s just so many places for it to grow and so many characters to put story on. The thing was always staying central to the conflict I had set up in the short, and making sure that every scene, especially in the pilot, was speaking to that conflict. We were allowing the world to grow from that center point. The biggest thing was just there’s so many more characters and so much more plot and just a lot of different places for it to go.
BEARS: So you made this short, and Lifetime saw it, and now your world is a series on a network, how did that all play out? That process took about two years before we are now seeing it.
So, it was just one of those moments in life. I didn’t have an agent, I hardly knew anyone in town, and the couple people I asked, I said, “I’m shocked that Lifetime wants it. I just don’t even know that it’s a good fit for their network, like I’m surprised they want it.” And they said the main thing is – the people I talked to – said the main thing is the passion for the project and Nina’s passion just sort of bowled me over. And it hasn’t wavered for a minute, I mean, she’s been our biggest supporter. I was just gonna say, I think they also just were looking to adjust the brand a little bit, and really have always talked about this show as being like a premium cable show. So as we were writing, they pushed us more and more to just let go of any concerns with the network or the audience and just make the show that we want to make, make it dark and make it ‘premium.’ I can’t tell you how unwavering she’s been, there has not been a moment that they haven’t not supported us in that, but I think sometimes even pushed us to go darker. She could tell that we were editing ourselves.
Another thing is that if I had pulled HBO or Showtime I mean, I don’t know what that would have been like, but I probably would have been one of many, many projects in development. The incredible thing about being at Lifetime is that we really have had so much support because they’re very, very excited about us, and we’re sort of a new direction for the network, it’s been a great place to be.
BEARS: Yeah, that’s really exciting. For me, I’m really interested to see how it plays out because it is that rebranding of a network. It’s like when AMC started to do Mad Men and they really changed their image.
SHAPIRO: I think that’s a part of it, too, for me. I’m a feminist, like, you know, ‘television for women,’ – I’m on board with it. I love to be on a network that supports women and that hires female directors. To find a home where I didn’t have to compromise a bit on the tone of the show. It’s exactly what I wanted to make, it’s totally true to the vision, and I’m really, really proud of it. Some of the feedback we’ve gotten is male viewers saying they’ve really enjoyed it but they never would have found it. That’s the part that I’m hoping for, I don’t feel like it’s just for a female audience, I feel like it applies across the board. We’re hoping men find it, too, because I think it’s totally relevant for both genders.
SHAPIRO: I think they call it co-viewing, everyone loves co-viewing.
BEARS: Right, exactly. So, how many episodes are planned for this first season?
SHAPIRO: We have ten.
BEARS: Is this season basically the season of ‘Everlasting,’ so that when the final episode of UnREAL happens, it’s the final episode of ‘Everlasting,’ right?
SHAPIRO: That was a really exciting thing when I was pitching it because there’s a show within a show, and this great scaffolding to hang the concept Each season of UnREAL will contain a season of Everlasting. It’s a really satisfying way to write, it’s really fun.
BEARS: Essentially you could replace about half the cast each year and, so you could get a pretty big guest star to come in next year as the Bachelor if you wanted, or you know, a couple smaller people that get eliminated as early on as you establish yourself. It’s already built into the show for you to bring in new people each year.
SHAPIRO: I think Nina was excited about that from the day I pitched it. I kind of talk about it like a starfish. You can cut off an arm and it just grows back. This thing can go in so many directions. The writer’s room was covered in dry-erase boards. It’s actually just a matter of kind of corralling the story and keeping it on track in terms of the journey.
BEARS: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much Sarah. I’m really excited about this show. It’s overwhelming, everybody needs to watch this show. I’m a shorts filmmaker myself and a film festival programmer. I’ve seen so many shorts and it’s really great to see a story that has a lot of story potential actually take it to the next level. For so many filmmakers that’s their dream, and it’s exciting.
UnREAL premieres tonight (June 1) on Lifetime Network at 10/9c.