UnREAL Is Over, But Reality TV Will Never Die

Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images.
Spoiler alert: The following post contains spoilers about the fourth and final season of UnREAL.
Every day, reality television comes closer and closer to lighting itself afire. Even The Bachelorette, one of the tidier shows on TV, managed to blunder its way into two PR crises this year. (Most recently, one of the contestants was convicted of indecent assault.) Still, reality television marches on, in part because it thrives on disaster. It creates mini disasters and then documents them, all so we can rehash them. UnREAL, though, the fictional show about reality television, had to come to an end.
"It was in the DNA of the show that it needed to end at some point," says Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the show's co-creator. She points out, "It's about a person who hates her job." Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) finish the season the way George R.R. Martin envisions ending Game of Thrones: They light the Everlasting house on fire, kissing reality television goodbye.
It's a sudden farewell for a show that made a sudden exit. After months of speculation, UnREAL's full fourth season dropped on Hulu Monday. The fourth season, Hulu announced, would also be its last. Refinery29 spoke to Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer, on the phone the day after its release. Consider this an UnREAL post-mortem.
Refinery29: Why did y'all decide to take the show to Hulu?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: "We finally sort of realized that was the place for it, viewing-wise. We were super excited about people being able to binge it. Because what was happening was that everybody was asking, 'When does it hit Hulu?' That was the question we got all the time. And we weren't having a ton of live viewing on Lifetime even though it had a lot of — what's happening with a lot of cable networks [is] there's not a ton of same-day viewing, which is really not great for their business model."
It was already a Hulu show!
"I think we're one of the many shows which had sort of a culty following. You know, like a niche show that certain people are really into, but that isn't a breakout hit on a main network. Those shows need to find homes where people can see them in a chunk and in a way that works with their viewing habits."
What do you think Rachel is going to do next?
"I am really excited to see if she gets into politics. I want to see Rachel and Quinn in DC. I want them to go do something that is actually very impactful, like use all their evil for good.
I just think their fucked-up brainpower behind something that actually has an effect on the world would be incredible. Seeing them navigate DC would be amazing."
Did you consider writing that into another season? Or a spinoff?
"I've thought about it, and it is something I would totally consider in the future. I think that we would need a breather for a second, because you'd need to believe that they had time to figure out how to work for a super PAC or whatever the hell she would do. We actually did talk about it. It's also kind of what I feel is the most pressing and urgent to talk about right now. It is something I would be interested in writing about."
At the time I pitched and sold UnREAL, reality TV felt super important to me. I think it's still a major force in world culture, but I feel like now we're in such a crisis state that actual politics is really more important."
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in the fourth season of "UnREAL."
In your time writing about it, how has your view of reality TV shifted?
"It's interesting because I also started working on this project about ISIS, and what I really found was that — what I feel is post-capitalist ennui, just this boredom with life and just that affection and lack of purpose actually was a major force in western recruits to ISIS. It was people who felt really disaffected and felt like they had no place to go and their future was really grim or just boring. And they basically saw a world where they could become a hero. It's actually the same basic emotional architecture as people getting involved in reality TV. It's sort of people wanting to find a way to be on the main stage and to be famous. And so I guess the way my view of reality TV has changed is that it felt like the whole thing to me before, and now it feels like one symptom of the main problem. But that it's finding a way of showing up in all different spaces. It's just this need for fame or attention, or self-publishing or self-documentation, like on social media. Because our lives don't really matter outside of that lens now. And that just blew my mind, to discover that ISIS was actually kind of a part of that."

I guess the way my view of reality TV has changed is that it felt like the whole thing to me before, and now it feels like one symptom of the main problem.

Have you watched any of the current season of The Bachelorette?
"I can't. I actually have like small PSTD. People always think I'm being cute, but I have run into old coworkers, or other people who work in reality TV, and they have the same reaction. It's kind of not a joke. We can't watch it. It's awful for it. When we were writing UnREAL, one of the room assistants was really into the show, so it was helpful that she knew the basics of what they were doing so we weren't retreading stuff. But I don't watch it."
I wondered if Everlasting: All Stars was based on Bachelor in Paradise.
"We know enough about it to know that that's one of the things they do. For us, what we were interested in doing was just having a new format. But not changing the show so radically that you couldn't recognize it. We definitely talked about, should it be Survivor? Should they be producing The Amazing Race? But the idea of the show, like the romance and gender stuff, were still pertinent to Quinn and Rachel, so we felt we had more to do there. "
You just had a baby, did that affect your writing on Quinn's storyline this season?
"A little bit, yeah. It definitely deepened my feelings about motherhood. And writing that final episode was really important to me in terms of giving space to women who decide not to be mothers and how important it is to serve and acknowledge that. Because one thing I was saying a lot in my own personal narrative was the idea that everyone around me was like, 'Oh my God! You finally got married and are having a baby!' Like, 'your life is whole.' While I understand where that comes from, I always identify more as a single person, and it was just so important to me to give [Quinn] the space to really embrace the choice to not be a mom."
So many crazy things happen on UnREAL. Was there ever a point this season where you said, 'This is too much'?
"Yes, totally. I think we were walking a line on all that stuff. I was away [on maternity leave] for part of it. I was weighing in on some of that stuff, but I think that what we felt — and I was definitely a part of this decision — was that we had to have Rachel do something that was so antithetical to who she was that she was actually going farther than she ever had before. It was actually really hard to find that because she's done a lot of terrible stuff. But I think tonally and executionally that was a really challenging storyline."
It's interesting because a storyline this season — and one from season 3, too — resembles the Bachelor in Paradise scandal from last year. Did you follow that at all?
"Yes, we did, of course. What we did talk about in terms of that Bachelor in Paradise scandal that I was most fascinated with for sure was, who was that producer that blew the whistle? And what was her experience of it? And why was this the moment that she thought she had to do it? It made a lot of sense to me. I could really imagine being her, from what I've heard. I actually, even with all the people I know, I don't know who this producer was."
After writing so much about reality television, do you feel like there's a future for reality TV?
"One hundred percent. Even when I was working in it, people were like, 'The end is near! It's over! It's almost over!' And I was like, 'It's so not over.' There are a million reasons why it's not done. One of the very powerful reasons reality TV is not over is because the business model is so incredibly strong. It's really cheap to make, and it makes a ton of money. It's a product that is sort of indestructible. I mean, they sell ad time on The Bachelor that's the same as they sell on This Is Us. Like, it's a primetime show, and it costs, what, one-ninetieth to make? You don't pay actors, it's non-union — I think it's still non-union — you barely pay for locations. Hawaii flies you there for free. It's like having a dirt cheap product that people pay a lot for."
It's the big soda of TV.
"That's pretty hard to argue with. And then the other part is that I think people have gotten really used to it, and nobody cares that it's scripted. Nobody cares that it's fake. It's not an issue. That aligns so closely with our post-truth, post-fact culture. It's not relevant to anybody that it's not authentic. It just needs to be entertaining."
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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