UnREAL Co-Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro Says We Need To "Pay Attention" To Reality TV

Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime
Is society's reality TV habit dangerous? For those of us devoted to all-things Bachelor Nation, it can be easy to write off the not-quite-real-life programming as just another guilty pleasure. That's why, perhaps, watching Lifetime's UnREAL is so disturbing.
Forget the high drama Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) confront on a daily basis as they attempt to craft another season of Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque reality show at the heart of UnREAL. UnREAL's toughest pill to swallow may be the somewhat insidious nature behind turning real people into puppets for the entertainment of the masses.
Of course, UnREAL isn't... reality. Or even reality TV. As co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro — herself a former Bachelor producer — will tell you, UnREAL and Everlasting are, indeed, works of fiction. After all, no one on The Bachelor has ever orchestrated a murder (looking at you, Jeremy) in order to cover up a death from the previous season. Honestly, given how long The Bachelor has been on the air (the reality show boasts 22 seasons, and its sister show The Bachelorette boasts 13) it probably would have happened by now.
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Hmm. Maybe I've been watching too much TV?
That's not to say that the drama of UnREAL doesn't bring up some very, well, real points about reality TV's place in our world. As a feminist, how comfortable do I feel knowing that, every season, a batch of women battle for a singular, not-even-that-great dude's heart on a certain ABC program? That was the question that Shapiro asked herself when working on The Bachelor, and ultimately, it led to Sequin Raze, the short film that would inspire her Lifetime series.
Refinery29 spoke to Shapiro, currently at work on season 3 of the series (which premieres February 26), about the nature of reality TV, and what some of the challenges were of creating the world of UnREAL.
Refinery29: UnREAL's show-within-a-show, Everlasting, had its first Black suitor on season 2, just months before Rachel Lindsay was cast as the Bachelorette. How did you feel after hearing that Bachelorette news?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: "We were thrilled the franchise chose to take that step. And hope the progress continues."
Would you ever consider pitching a reality TV show in the future? If so, what might it look like?
"Ha! Probably not. I was never really in that game, it was an accidental day job. I love actors and the written word. I studied screenwriting in college. I also think I might have too much PTSD. I think whatever I would pitch would be very weird."
Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images
What is something that people don't understand about reality television that you wish they did?
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"Reality TV is no joke. It gave us our President. So, I say take it seriously. Pay attention to it. It's powerful!"
What was the hardest episode or storyline of UnREAL for you and the other writers/producers to work on?
"I think Mary’s suicide was one of the hardest story lines to crack. [Co-creator Marti Noxon] and I had a lot of first season moves sketched out before we came into the room, and I even had the basic arc when I pitched and sold the show. But Mary [dying by suicide] came once we started working with the room. That's what's amazing about working with our room. Super talented, brave writers. There were a lot of schools of thought on it. I was worried about it tonally, but it felt important to have Rachel’s actions have real-world consequences, and from a craft perspective, challenging in a good way.
"A couple of the writers had experience with friends of family and mental illness, and we concluded that someone [dealing with bipolar disorder], that far off their meds, could genuinely believe their child would better off without them. And at the end of the day, it was so important for the real world to come busting into Rachel and Quinn's fake world. I am grateful to Nancy Dubuc and the team at Lifetime and A+E who let us take that risk. And we made it a priority to make sure we dealt with the story consequences."
Rachel has a hard time grappling with her feminist identity as a reality producer. Why was that an important aspect of her character to showcase?
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"At the end of the day, it's just good story math — hypocrisy makes for great central character conflict. She’s always at war with herself. Like Dexter was a 'great guy' who was also a killer. Walter White: a loving dad who is also a drug kingpin. Those kind of dualities are a rich place to write from because there’s raging conflict. The show is a battle for Rachel’s soul from start to finish. And while the germ of the idea was based on a time in my life — as a writer, I chose that time in my life to write about, very much because of the depth of conflict within me at the time.
"I'm also very interested in the moment in a young person’s life when they have to resolve childish idealism with the reality of being an adult who needs a job. She says she’s a feminist, but her life's work is to advance misogyny. And exploit other women. It was a great place to start from."
How much of Rachel is based on yourself and/or other producers on The Bachelor?
"The central Rachel conflict is inspired by that time in my life, as a feminist working on The Bachelor, but the show is 100% fiction. I’m a writer first and foremost, so we make stuff up!"
Has anyone reached out to you from your reality TV days after UnREAL premiered? What did they say?
"Some of my old coworkers have reached out. I think they enjoy seeing the world. Being a reality producer is a complicated, challenging, and weirdly invisible job. The producers are edited out of interviews, they hide behind furniture to stay out of shots. So, I think it’s fun for people to see their life explained. I don’t think a lot of people even know that 'producers' like Rachel and Quinn exist and are essentially 'writing' and 'directing' some of their favorite shows."
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