UnReal Tackles Money, Dick, Power & Diversity — But Not In That Order

Image: Lifetime.
It's hard to believe. This spring, The Bachelor franchise turned 14 years old — and in all that time, never once has the man at the center of it all been Black. But UnReal, the deliciously dark satire that returns with a highly anticipated sophomore season on June 6, has taken that matter into its own hands. We spoke to UnReal co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and executive producer Carol Barbee about why they went with a Black bachelor, the worst things they've ever done to make good TV, and the yet-to-unfold drama set to unfold in season 2. What is the darkest UnReal plot line that has roots in real life?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: "I was a dyed-in-the-wool feminist who had come to [Hollywood] intending to be a screenwriter and filmmaker, but got trapped into a contract on a different TV show. They transferred me to The Bachelor and I said no, but I still had to go. About three years in, I had gotten to the point where it was my job and I just had to do it. I was super depressed, really miserable, and I was doing this girl's exit interview. She had just been dumped and was really smart: It was 4 in the morning, my crew was going into overtime, I was so fucking tired, and I just could not get her to give me anything. "She was an attorney and I knew she had an eating disorder. Finally, I was just so exhausted that I said: ‘Do you think he dumped you because you’re fat?' She lost her shit. She was like crying — hyperventilating, freaking out. It was great TV, everyone was like, ‘Nicely done, high five, awesome!’ Then, I walked her to the minivan to go to the airport and she says, ‘I hope you know you ruined my life. I’m a litigator. I have to stand in front of judges and you just fucking ruined my career.’ I looked at myself: I was covered in nacho cheese from craft services and wearing size-16 Gap jeans — I had gained a shitload of weight, because I was working all night and eating all the time; my skin was all broken out and my hair was all greasy. I was like: What the fuck have I become? "That was really the end for me, when I tried to get out of my job and leave. [UnReal] is totally fictionalized — I’m totally a writer. But that moment...You know when you’re in college, you think you know exactly who you are, and you spend all these years in seminars being like, 'These are my morals and these are my ethics and this is what I believe,' and then the minute you have to make a paycheck, you sell your soul? I thought that the price of my soul would be so much higher. I was like, $1,500 a week without benefits, that’s the price of my soul. That’s crazy." Last season left off with a prime moment between Quinn and Rachel. What is that relationship going to look like this season?
SGS: "For me, it’s the primary relationship for the show. It always has been. We sort of look at them as a couple on the show, so every time we break down an episode, it sort of [centers on] where they are at: Are they fighting? Are they together? Are they apart? It’s a huge part of the show's DNA. [Their relationship] is just so close to my experience, because I’m a total workaholic, so I am used to having those kinds of work relationships with women. "One of the things that we talk about this season very specifically is mentorship — even that word and how complicated it is, because if it goes as planned, you outgrow your mentor. There’s not a nice, graceful handoff where you’re like, ‘Cool, you taught me everything you know, now I can take your job!’ That doesn’t usually go over well. [Rachel and Quinn] start this season by getting matching tattoos that say "Money Dick Power;" it’s their list of priorities for their lives, because basically, they can get anything they need from each other except for dick — and dick is readily available. It’s like, ‘Cool, we’re never going to smoke our own crack again, because last season we fell for the bullshit, we both fell in love with these stupid guys.’" Carol Barbee: "This show is so focused on these two women and we have the luxury of exploring how they both actually feel emotionally about their roles in the mentorship thing — meaning that we don’t need to have Quinn be the great role model. She can be upset that Rachel is growing past her; she can be jealous, she can be protective. At the same time, she can come around and Rachel can realize that Quinn is the only one in the world who really loves her. It can be all of those things: It doesn’t have to be a pure mentor relationship. "[Also, in this season, there is] someone who comes in, gets close to Rachel, and tries to siphon Rachel off, away from Quinn, saying, ‘You’ve outgrown her, she doesn’t want you to move on, mentors never do.’ The characters are so well-drawn that we have the luxury of letting them behave and not feel like they have to be one thing."

We’ve been sold two lines of bullshit: One is Cinderella. The other is the super-happy career woman who doesn’t need anything except for her work.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
SGS: “We don’t really hold [Quinn] to any standard at all: She’s a fucking terrible mentor, she’s vindictive, crazy, creepy, and competitive — all of the things that people really are. But she’s still the most important person in Rachel’s life...And also, Rachel is kind of a fucking idiot, too. She kind of stabs [Quinn] in the back in a way that’s ridiculous and cruel. They both just make huge mistakes with each other all of the time." So, does that mean that season 2 is probing forgiveness territory, too?
SGS: [Laughs] “A lot, like a lot. There’s a heartbreaking scene between them, after something happens in Quinn’s life that’s pretty serious. They’re fighting at the time, because there’s been a betrayal and a power struggle — they’re all fighting for the throne. Quinn is running the show and Chet comes back from this Paleolithic lifestyle retreat as a caveman and is like, ‘You’re meant to have babies and be nurtured! Let me take the show back!' and Quinn's like, ‘Go fuck yourself.' "So, they’re all fighting for power and there’s a moment where a real thing happens in Quinn’s life and Rachel tries to come to her and say, ‘Quinn, I know we’re fighting about work stuff, but are you okay?’ Quinn says: ‘Work stuff? What other stuff is there?’ It’s the fucking meanest thing that she could have ever said to Rachel, because she’s just saying, 'Our relationship doesn’t exist,' which is totally not true. That is the scariest thing for people who are workaholics — who make their whole life work — because they don’t have anybody else.”

Do you think reality shows about falling in love have had any impact on the way we date and seek romance in real life?
CB: "We talk about that [on the show]: We talk about Chet wanting [to create a] legacy. He talks to Quinn and says, 'We’ve brought up these generations of men...' SGS: "Wimps and bitches.” CB: "...wimps and bitches who think they should parachute out of diamond-studded helicopters. Women don’t want that. According to Chet, women want a man who can kill with his bare hands." SGS: “I feel like where it sort of lands with me is that the princess fantasy is bullshit — but so is the Ally McBeal fantasy. I feel like we’ve been sold two lines of bullshit: One is Cinderella. The other is the super-happy career woman who doesn’t need anything except for her work...I think the truth is somewhere in-between. It's really complicated being in a wave of feminism where you can have it all — but lean in! Lean out! Opt in! Opt out! Do the career, but don’t! There are just so many messages about what it is to be a woman. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves what works. Women are just people. Women have to navigate with what actually matters for them. CB: "Any time you’re fighting your own nature, you’re not going to be happy. You’re not in your power when you’re fighting your own nature. I think sometimes we feel like we have to be ‘Money Dick Power’ [as though that] somehow that makes us bulletproof. It’s just not true. It keeps you vulnerable in a different way." What informed the decision to cast a Black bachelor on Everlasting this season?
SGS: “We did it for variety of reasons: I feel like it’s one of the most pressing conversations happening in the country right now. When I was doing research on some of the police shootings and violence against Black men, one of the things that came up is the startling similarities between a lot of the testimonies of cops after those shootings. They have a really similar way of describing the unarmed Black men that are approaching them as ‘superhuman’ or ‘animals’ or ‘monsters'. Research [suggests that] Black men only being portrayed a certain way on television — as gangsters or drug dealers or criminals — reinforces this stereotype, so a split-second decision by a young or untrained police officer [means] they’re going to see that person as more threatening. Prince Charming as a Black man felt like a potent, important thing to do." And what about the bachelor from last season? Is Adam making a comeback?
SGS: "He might be back! The truth is, we feel like their stories didn’t finish — like Rachel and Adam felt like they were not finished. They have more to do together. So yeah, he may make an appearance.” Any other spoilers you can spill on?
CB: “Both women find love interests and they both start to think that there’s a beautiful life for them outside Everlasting, away from each other. We see them entertain that fantasy — and then, we see what happens with that, because of who they are and what they need. Constance Zimmer was saying that she’s having to play colors in Quinn that she has never had to play before and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also exciting. She’s trying to find her way within those positive, loving feelings when she’s Quinn and 'How does Quinn handle that?' [Turning to Shapiro] "And you direct. We have four female directors this season." SGS: “It’s a huge passion for me: I’ve been a director since I was 16 and it’s one of the most sexist industries on earth. The ratios are worse than underwater welding — I had a better chance of becoming an ice road trucker, literally, than a working female director. I’m serious: They recruit women for ice road trucking and they just don’t want us to direct. So, I directed, Shiri Appleby directed, we had two other women direct. It’s been great to have that energy on set." Who can we look for in terms of the ladies seeking love?
CB: “Because they’ve chosen the Black bachelor as the suitor, [Quinn and Rachel] have cast women around him in order to get maximum ratings and fireworks. Quinn ends up promising all of these crazy things to the network president to sell it, so Rachel has to go out and find those people. We have a girl that shows up in a Confederate-flag bikini. We have a Black activist woman."

“We have hot Rachel.” CB: “Hot Rachel is a girl who is sort of a super hot, younger, undamaged version of Rachel, who isn't crazy and actually showers.” UnReal premieres Monday June 6 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. Episodes can also be streamed on Hulu.

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