After a lengthy hiatus, UnREAL is back — and in a big way. For the first time, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) won't have a suitor on their hands, but a suitress. Caitlin FitzGerald's Serena is a woman equal parts brilliant and beautiful, and yet... she's still very much single. As Rachel and Quinn attempt to navigate this brave new world, UnREAL does what it always has: Explore the ethics of reality television in a world where women have, at least theoretically, put the princess fantasy to bed, and open up serious questions about gender politics in the workplace and beyond.
Season 3 showrunner Stacy Rukeyser leads the team through this continued exploration, and it feels more than appropriate. Rukeyser, who, in addition to working on the previous seasons of UnREAL, also boasts work on shows like Greek, Twisted, and The Lying Game, has come out in a big way against the insidious patriarchy that infects Rachel and Quinn's career. It has, after all, infected Rukeyser's own time in the entertainment industry: The writer penned a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter describing the uncomfortable experience of her two-year job on One Tree Hill, where she recalls she once had to beg the showrunner not to install a hot tub outside the writer's room. (Yes, really.)
"Showrunner Mark Schwahn created, from the top down, a writers room that I described at the time, perhaps naively, as a frat house — and that I now see as a misogynistic quagmire," Rukeyser wrote in her Hollywood Reporter guest column.
It's safe to say that, now that Rukeyser is running the room, there will be zero talk of hot tub installment. In our interview, Rukeyser opened up about working on UnREAL and how she hopes to change things for women in front of and behind the camera.
You've worked on UnREAL since season 1. With the showrunner position, what did you hope to bring to the table?
"I felt like in season 2 there had been a lot of big plot points that happened... but we hadn't really have a chance to sit with the consequences or the effects of those plot points. I really wanted to not pretend that those things hadn't happened or ignore them, but to really sit with them and be honest. Like the journey with Rachel and Quinn: Where are they coming from socially and psychologically, and to really take the time to unravel some of those things. While there are lots of very hot shirtless men and a lot of fun is happening on the show, there’s also this deeper emotional and psychological character work that’s going on that’s really exciting to me.
"I’ve had a lot of very good mentors who showed me who I wanted to be as a showrunner, and I knew that it was really important to me. Television is such a collaborative medium, and it was really important for me to create a great working experience for everybody who’s on the show and to make sure the writers, and the actors, and production, and everybody felt heard, and felt ownership of this show and felt that it was a safe space. This is now coming to light in the #MeToo era, but I knew the kind of experience I wanted to create for the people who are working on this show, and that was equally as important to me."
What did you specifically do to make the writers on your show feel safe and protected?
"Everyone should have a voice and be heard. Nobody should be attacked for their ideas or made to feel bad about them. I work in a pretty collaborative way, so when a writer turns in an outline or script I give notes to the writer in the room and in front of everyone. I think other people have good ideas, too, and good notes that they could give, but even more so I believe if you hear the notes that the showrunners are giving to other writers, your own writing will become better. The whole thing about being on staff is that you write like the showrunner. You want to deliver what they want to have. So I think you get that much closer if you can hear the notes that are given.
"I really encourage writers to produce their own episodes. Even just from staff writers on up; pre-production stuff and being on set. When I do a polish on everybody's script or outlines, I often include them in that process to check with them, 'How do you think about this?' or 'What were you trying to get to with this,' or 'I need this to be more like that' so that they don’t just feel like they’ve turned something in and then it disappeared behind a closed door in an office somewhere and turned into something else.
"I can also say in the wake of the #MeToo stuff, and in the wake of what just came out about a couple of showrunners who were subsequently fired, I did make an announcement at the table read so that everyone knew how important it was to me that everyone feel safe. Then, I wanted to make sure that everybody had my phone number, and to let them know that I take these things very seriously and that they can rest assured that something will be done about it. I certainly didn't always feel that way on every show that I’ve worked on, so that was important to me that they knew that I don't take this as a joke. Plenty of people make fun of the sexual harassment seminars that we have to have at the beginning of every show, and they don't take it seriously, and that’s part of the problem. I just wanted to make sure that I was showing what kind of an environment and what kind of a leader I wanted to be."
Does writing a show about gender dynamics affect how people connect in the room?
"I think that certainly when you have a female showrunner or a female creator, anyone who is interested in writing on that show is gonna have to be interested in talking about those things and frankly respecting a woman as the head of that. It’s incredibly cathartic to write about some of these struggles that we have faced over our time in Hollywood. You know Rachel and Quinn, are trying to pitch the feminist suitress to their network, and he is really unsure about it until Chet, his man buddy, says, 'Oh no this is a good idea.' I like the idea that he agrees to it [because a man said it was a good idea] and how maddening that is. Rachel calls Chet on the fact that he’s been sliding by on the backs of all of the women who do the work for him. That’s great to be able to talk about.
"Quinn starts the season having taken a real hit in terms of her reputation. [For] women, when you have a mistake or a scandal or a flop, that can stick with you much more so than it would for a man. It’s great to be able to talk about these things. We have a real 50/50 in the writer’s room, and [men] have a lot to say about it too from a male perspective... The men that we have on staff are definitely awesome, supportive, amazing men who would just say 'You go girl!' to anything."
The new season of UnREAL has so many more male characters just by the nature of there being a suitress. How did you craft the different personalities of these male reality contestants?
"Some of it is just plain fun. If you look at these guys, you look at an insight into the types of guys who we find attractive. You’ve got guys from all over the world, with different accents, [all across the board]. But from a story standpoint, for Serena, one of the things thematically that I was interested in looking at is who is the right man for a woman like this? I think that this is one of the things that me and my friends talk about a lot. Is the right man for her another Alpha guy, who is equally successful at work, and together they’ll be a power couple, and will travel all over the world together, and that’s the kind of person that she should be with? Or, should she be with more of a Beta guy, where she'll leave to start work and he can be home to take care of the kids more? That’s certainly a viable choice too. Now more and more women are the primary breadwinner, and maybe that’s the way to go. That’s something we’re interested in exploring, and going on that journey as Serena tries to figure that out as well."
How do you think Serena as a character will surprise us?
"First of all, she’s played by Caitlin FitzGerald, who is such a phenomenal actress. I loved her on Masters of Sex and Rectify, and she is a goddess. You look at her from the outside and go, 'No way does a woman like this have trouble finding a guy!,' but that is true. That is the experience we were hearing from our friends, that yes, even a woman like that is frustratingly single. I think that she comes in really determined to find a husband, and it’s sort of come to this, that she thinks, 'Why not?' She’s tried everything else, and she'll have these 20 highly curated blind dates. If it doesn’t work out with one of these guys, then at least by the time that she's done every available man in America will know who she is.
"What she doesn’t really count on is the sausage factory can be in terms of her being produced, the other contestants being produced. They can edit the footage any way they want. Even this confident, smart woman is destabilized by some of it. I think that’s interesting and surprising, to see how even the strongest and most confident women can have their own insecurities that lead them astray. I also think that we start to unravel a little bit of who she is as a person and what she wants and where she’s been. It’s complicated. People are never just one thing."
What's one challenge Serena will face when it comes to interacting with her suitors as a smart, successful woman?
"In the second episode she’s playing poker with the guys and wins, and it’s the way she is when she’s playing that is kind of off-putting to some of the guys, rightly or wrongly. That makes her nervous and insecure enough, combined with the fact that she’s insecure and nervous to begin with, because she’s still single. She says at the end of the first episode, 'Everyone says that I’m too picky, but the truth is nobody picks me.' There’s a very vulnerable place underneath it all. She is convinced by Chet that she does need to change who she is. That she does need to soften the edges, that she does need to become more the girl who just wants to bake cookies and give blowjobs, and that is how she should be with the guys. And so she tries it out, and it actually works for a while. Not with everyone, because some of them just are just like, 'What are you doing?' and 'I liked the old you, the real you.' But it worked for some guys, and she goes down a path that is so not who she is, and really a sort of trespassing of her own integrity... What are the compromises we all have to make as we’re going through this dating dance?"
Do you feel that a reality show like Everlasting could ever be feminist? Is Rachel fighting an uphill battle to make Everlasting better for women?
"I do think that part of UnREAL from the beginning was unraveling the princess fantasy that is the basis of shows like The Bachelor, where you’re supposed to be totally fine with battling for a man who is dating 20 other women at the same time, and you should be quiet, and don’t talk about your job a lot, and get along well, and look good in a bikini, and in exchange he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner, and that’s what dating is. That’s really toxic, and not helpful.
"I guess you could argue that when you turn it around and have The Bachelorette, if you have 20 guys competing for a woman, that in some ways it’s empowering, but that doesn't feel like real life to me. It’s also the way the contestants speak to each other and about each other, and the way the people who watch speak about the contestants — it feels very destructive. It’s easy to turn from talking shit about other people to talking shit about yourself, and talking in those terms. We all need to figure out how are we going to get along and what are the right ways to get along. I don’t know if this is necessarily helping us do that."
Last season focused a bit more on Rachel's mental health. Where is she in season 3?
"When she starts the third season, she’s been off living on a goat farm in the middle of nowhere. She is committed to this practice called 'Essential Honesty,' where basically she tells absolutely no lies, and she writes down all the lies she’s told in a little journal, and she keeps track of all the days she’s gone lie-free. To some extent, it’s working for her, because it’s keeping her on the straight-and-narrow and keeping her integrity in a place that works for her. The one thing that she’s not really being honest with herself about is her own responsibility, in terms of what Jeremy did to Coleman and Yael at the end of last season. And he comes back having gotten sober, and he’s gone through anger management, and he sort of feels like everything will be fine with him and Rachel, and she’s like, 'You’re crazy, you killed two people, how could you do that?' and he says, 'Because you told me to,' and she is shocked and horrified and completely denies it.
"I think it’s an interesting point to look back at that beef between them at the end of season 2, when she says she was just venting, and she was talking about how Coleman and Yael were going to the press, and they were all at risk. And she says she was just venting, or was she producing him? Was she trying to get him to do something? I think that she does have some personal responsibility, and I think the truth is probably she knew he would do something. I don’t know that she knew what he would do or how far he would go, but I think she knew he would do something and take responsibility for that.
"So Dr. Simon, who is now the real-ass shrink that they have on the show, he is helping her or getting her to a place of confronting that, and then also starts to unravel where that darkness comes from. She reveals at the end of last season that she had been raped by one of her mother’s patients when she was 12, and so she starts to unpack some of that, and goes down the road of confronting what happened. In addition to the trauma of what happened to her, there’s also the trauma of the way in which her family dealt with it, and what her mother knew, and her father knew or didn’t know, and how they basically refused to talk about it with her, and refused to let her process it in a real way. She starts to unravel what quickly becomes a family story.
"We did sort of make effort to look at this issue with what is 'wrong' with Rachel Goldberg, and I think the answer that we come to is that there’s never just one thing. We all sort of think like, 'If I can just figure out this one thing about me, or solve this one thing about me, or fix this one thing about me, then everything would be fine, that everything would be better.' It just doesn’t really seem to work out that way, it’s not quite so black and white."
I’m curious, where did the "Essential Honesty" thing come from? Is that a real program?
"There is a real program, I think it’s called 'Radical Honesty.' It’s something that [co-creator] Sarah Gertrude Shapiro found between seasons and thought this would be a very interesting thing for Rachel to be committed to. Sarah had her own experience of leaving The Bachelor, and retreating to Oregon and trying to get straight with herself. Rachel says, 'When I first got here, I couldn’t even tell the truth about what I had for lunch,' and that was really real for Sarah as well, coming off The Bachelor. Her instinct, her default setting, was to lie about something, because of the work that she had been doing, and how do you start to unravel that?"
So what do you think the theme or message of this season is?
"I really think that gender politics is the theme that we’re looking at, and so much in terms of 'Who is the right person for this woman,' 'Who is the right person for Quinn or Rachel,' and 'How do we deal with the things that have happened to us in our lives,' and 'Who they make us today' both as women and as people, too."