A dark tale of two strong women - told by two women showruners - was this season’s sunny surprise for Lifetime. As fans of UnREAL found out, making a show about making a show makes for levels upon levels of can’t-miss drama.
When we last left the reality show Everlasting, our Bachelor-esque suitor Adam had chosen his princess, Anna, for a walk down the aisle.
Unfortunately, she then overheard him profess his feelings for Rachel, an Everlasting producer, so Anna ditched him at the altar. On screen, naturally.
Off screen, Rachel had engineered the couple's falling-out to create ratings fireworks, with the guidance of executive producer Quinn. It's all in a long day's work for Rachel, who has a gift for manipulation that would put a Lannister to shame.
In this game of thrones, you win or you cry. Or occasionally jump off a rooftop to your death. Welcome to UnREAL, the scripted show wrapped around the warped Everlasting.
When we last left Quinn and Rachel — played by Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby — they were reviewing the scorched earth of their Everlasting season. Rachel had been dumped by not one, but two men in succession, and her only true companion seemed to be Quinn, who'd sabotaged one of those relationships.
They'd also managed to take over Everlasting and destroy Chet (Craig Bierko), the show's nominal creator, in the process. Of all the harm they'd inflicted on their contestants and each other, that fatal swan dive by Mary (Ashley Scott) was the only event they regretted.
"We killed somebody, didn't we?" Rachel asks Quinn. "Yeah, let's not do that again," is the reply. Pretty never looked so ugly.
But the biggest shock of UnREAL's entire first season may be that the dark, edgy series airs on Lifetime, a network so notorious for its women-in-peril movies that it's even parodied itself with A Deadly Adoption. Nobody's laughing now.
The first scripted series fully produced and distributed by A+E Studios, UnREAL averaged more than 3.7 million views across all platforms. It's also Lifetime's youngest scripted series, with a median audience age of 43. The actors and show have earned a slew of award nominations, with Zimmer winning the Critics' Choice Award for best supporting actress in a drama series.
All this success arose from co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro's worst nightmare. After film school, she was working on the reality show High School Reunion for Telepictures when a producer approached her to work on ABC's The Bachelor. She politely declined, she says, "Because I had seen it, and I was like, 'This is the apocalypse — the world's over.'"
The producer told her to check her contract. Shapiro had unknowingly signed away the right to choose which show she was on, and how long she'd be on it. (That contract language has since been made illegal.) After nine seasons in three years, she couldn't take it anymore. "I said, 'If I don't get out of here, I'm going to kill myself.'" She was finally allowed to quit — after promising to leave the state.
While recovering at ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in Oregon, she was encouraged to work on her own projects. The result was Sequin Raze — a savage, brilliant short film about a reality show producer trying to coax a dramatic response out of a humiliated contestant.
Ad executive Sally DeSipio took it upon herself to set up a pitch meeting with her friend Nina Lederman, then Lifetime's senior vice-president of scripted series programming and development. It was Shapiro's first pitch to anyone, ever. But even before the short went on to win an award at South by Southwest, it had won Lederman's heart.
"It was literally immediate: I want it," Lederman says. "Your hair's on fire when you see something like that." Her passion won over a skeptical Shapiro, who kept double-checking that Lifetime would really want to make a show as dirty and rough as the short. Lederman went about gathering more talent for the show, including experienced showrunner Marti Noxon (Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce).
"She had just come back from India and had a terrible virus," Lederman says. "But I knew that I didn't want to send her the Sequin Raze DVD and say, 'Get back to me.'" Instead, she waited weeks for Noxon to recover and come into the office to watch the short with her. It worked. Noxon signed on as co- creator, working with Shapiro to shape the series.
Noxon has been something of a mentor to Shapiro, not entirely unlike Quinn's relationship to Rachel. "I don't think we have nearly as much pathos," Noxon notes wryly. "But that primary relationship plays itself out in what is essentially a sort of shotgun marriage. We got really lucky, because that can go wrong, and in our case it went all the right ways."
They got lucky again with the shotgun marriage of Appleby and Zimmer, a pairing that almost didn't happen. Zimmer turned the part down flat the first time around. Then the pilot needed to be reshot, and Quinn had to be recast. "We sat through three weeks of casting, with people playing the Quinn character like an evil queen," Shapiro says.
Lederman still wouldn't give up on Zimmer. "I left the office knowing that Constance was the perfect person," she says. Later that day, she ran into the actress at a fundraiser at their kids' school. They had never met before.
"Nina pulled me aside and said, 'I need you to give this show a chance because this is the part you were born to play,'" Zimmer recalls. "She made it personal." Zimmer signed on without reading a script.
"Nina really is one of the mothers of the project," says A+E's executive vice-president and general manager, Rob Sharenow. "She had an incredible passion from the get-go."
As for the show's success, he adds, "It's not an understatement to say it's been a game-changer in terms of how people perceived our brand.... Being part of the conversation is something we really value at Lifetime, and we're seeing that more and more."
The writers took the network's encouragement and ran with it to some very nasty places. "We threw likability out the window on day one," Shapiro says. "We put a fatwa on the word." Instead, they focused on relatability. "Just keeping the character decisions grounded and motivated was a really good way to do that."
Noxon adds: "Why are you rooting for Tony Soprano even though he's killed people with his bare hands? Partly because he was James Gandolfini. But that was something we talked about a lot — we have to see their vulnerabilities."
UnREAL is a feminist show that doesn't shout its feminism. Well, except for that shirt Rachel wears in the first episode, bearing the motto: "This is what a feminist looks like." Even that's a painful irony, as she uses her beautiful mind to manipulate the hell out of everyone around her.
"It never feels preachy or like they're trying to knock you over the head with their point of view," Appleby says of the series. "They're telling stories that leave the audience having to think about things, to understand where the feminism lies." The creators made a number of decisions that Shapiro calls intentional but not calculated.
"We're really passionate about portraying women at work, because we're workaholics," she says, adding that on TV, "There's not really a model for women who are married to their careers. I don't think we did the math on how rare that is." Or that something as normal as female masturbation would become (ahem) a hot-button issue after Rachel engaged in it.
The show has sparked spirited analysis among fans and critics since it premiered. Even the platonic "I love you's" exchanged at the end of the season-one finale — between a broken Rachel and a baffled Quinn — created a flurry on social media.
Amid all the big narrative twists, it's those little moments that catch viewers by surprise. "When Rachel turns her underwear inside out, I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" Noxon says of one eye-popping moment of questionable hygiene. "That was the other thing that we totally agreed on: set life itself is just fascinating."
"What's shocking on UnREAL is the stark truth, not the bigger plot stuff," Shapiro says. "It really is based on me and that time in my life. But it's funny — I'm also having a lot of experiences with being Quinn now, too, as I've gotten older."
The creators also share what they call a "no-asshole policy." "If we're making a show about Hollywood destroying people's lives, we need to have some perspective and treat our people well," Shapiro says. Fortunately for the ratings of Everlasting — and UnREAL — Quinn has no such qualms.
For all the romance in the Everlasting air, the pairing of Rachel and Quinn is the closest the show comes to a true love story, as damaged as it may be. The actresses' obvious chemistry makes it work. "We were pleasantly surprised at how much people loved the relationship between Quinn and Rachel," Zimmer says. "When we were in it, we knew it. We love each other off camera, and I think that's coming through."
Sitting on a couch after a photo shoot, the actors are separated by Appleby's breast pump. (She's recently given birth to her second child, a boy. Lederman sent him two tiny "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirts.)
Appleby has scrubbed her face bare; Zimmer has kept her makeup on for a later shoot. Both sport slightly distressed jeans. Appleby wears a black jacket, while Zimmer is in a white cloth coat. "I have the same coat at home," Appleby says.
Their mutual affection is evident as they talk about their roles, the only disagreement arising over Quinn's motivation for breaking up Rachel and Adam (played by Freddie Stroma).
Zimmer: "Quinn absolutely thought she was helping Rachel."
Appleby: "No way! Not even a chance."
Appleby: "I took it like she's doing whatever she can to keep her."
Zimmer: "I had to play it that I knew that Adam was bad."
That debate aside, they agree that the on-screen friendship is as unusual as their characters. "It's two strong females in powerful positions, but in two different positions," Zimmer observes. "They're both just as powerful and just as flawed, but they're not competitive."
Appleby adds: "I also really like playing a woman who's not focused on how she's affecting a man. Not to say that's not interesting, but I've explored a lot of, 'How does my character affect a man's story?' [on other shows]. The men in this show are feeding the journey these two women are on."
Working with two female showrunners, "There's a shorthand," Appleby says. "There doesn't need to be a lot of explaining." Zimmer says: "There's a trust factor that comes from talking to a strong woman about being a strong woman."
The actresses are excited about season two — which premieres June 6 — even though they have no idea what's to come. The pressure is on to top their first go-round.
"It's nerve-wracking in a good way," Appleby says,
Zimmer agrees: "I'm more excited about this season, because I'm going to allow myself the opportunity to take Quinn to darker places that I was afraid to take her to in the first season." After watching a few episodes, she notes, "I remember being able to say to myself, 'I could have done that meaner.'"
Shapiro discloses a few season-two teasers: Chet’s been ousted, Quinn's in charge, and Rachel has been promoted. "The princess fantasy failed them in season one," she says, "so they're determined to never fall prey to it again, and they decide to live like kings."
Meaning? "Like men," Shapiro explains. '"We have money, we have power, we can get laid whenever we want, and we have each other. There's really nothing else we need, so let's take over the world.' It's really fun. We open on them in a Vegas hotel suite with coke and money and poker chips all over, dancing on tables with hot black dudes."
The reality-show structure will remain in place, but everything else will be shaken up.
"One thing we don't want to do is beat the same drum over and over again," Shapiro says. The show is going to address issues of race, with Everlasting's first black suitor, played by B.J. Britt.
They're even looking at the men's rights movement through Chet, who went off to lick his wounds on a paleolithic caveman retreat before returning to reclaim his crown. "He says to Quinn, 'If you want war, I'll fight you like a man.'"
Shapiro may be Rachel, and even a little Quinn, but she jokes that she really aspires to be Chet. "I could wear my sweatpants to work and just be loaded and hot and arrogant," she says, then adds, "Not the arrogant part."