Lifetime’s new scripted series UnREAL follows the cast and crew of a Bachelor-esque dating competition called Everlasting. Created by out filmmaker Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon (who has worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Glee and Grey’s Anatomy, to name a select few), UnREAL stars Shiri Appleby as Rachel, an expert manipulator who begrudgingly works to create good TV by lying to contestants and pretending to be acting in their best interests. While she might sound like a nightmare, she’s struggling every step of the way because, as her shirt says when we meet her in the pilot, she’s a feminist.
There are tons of complications on set, which is where most of the show takes place. Rachel initially left her job on the previous season after a very public meltdown that led to her confessing her love for her coworker, Jeremy (Josh Kelly). But Rachel is lost without her job, and everything else in her life is falling apart so she needs it more than ever. Her bitchy boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) pushes her to play the Everlasting women like game of chess, and they all have individual quirks and backstories that Rachel and her team use to inspire all kinds of watch-worthy scenarios.
UnREAL is a delicious look at the magic of television, and how women are used in the media. Sarah and Marti have written complex female characters who are all in on playing the game, even if it’s against their better judgement. Faced with daily moral dilemmas, the women who are behind the scenes on Everlasting are just as much a part of the show as the women vying for the bachelor’s heart.
Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
We spoke with Marti and Sarah at TCA back in January and touched on why lesbian and bi women might find enjoyment in shows that is deeply entrenched in the heterosexual paradigm.
AfterEllen.com: Do you see Unreal having any queer elements to the show?
Marti Noxon: We do have a whole storyline about somebody involved in the show who almost gets outed.
Sarah Gertude Shapiro: We definitely address the issue. I think, for us, there’s so much about gender on the show— it’s really obsessive about femininity and gender and gender roles. I feel like, for me, as an LGBT person myself, that is an interesting place to be in terms of watching those characters navigate traditional gender roles with each other.
AE: I have a lot of lesbian-identified friends who love The Bachelor. Why do you think that is?
MN: It conforms to these traditional ideas of a prince and a princess and riding off happily ever after. But again, why do people watch reality TV? All kinds of people watch all kinds of reality TV and some of it is really good—and some of it, I feel like, promotes bullying. Definitely for us a big part of this was the way women are portrayed on television—all kinds of television across the board—and the difference between the way you see them and what women are like who are actually producing the television shows; the contrast between the fantasy that we create and the reality of every day, just trying to get by.
SGS: In our research, which was really fascinating, we found out that median income for the average Bachelor viewer is like 150 a year, masters’ degree. We were thinking about how it really is, sort of, people who should really know better. But people love it and fall for it, and what we were really interested in is having compassion for the fact people fall for it, and, like, why do we fall for it? I think it’s the idea that somebody would really sweep you away and take care of you and make all of your problems disappear.
AE: How much of yourselves do you inject into your characters?
MN: I was an assistant and worked on shows behind the scenes for years before I got my start. There’s so many things I relate to. It’s your life—the show becomes your life. Your job becomes your life and for some of us, that’s a generational thing. One of the greatest things about this show and the other one I’m working on is this is reflecting a whole new world where women work, and you work right out of college and that’s actually your main focus. And relationships—you look at them as if they’re going to be supportive of that lifestyle or if they’re going to be an impediment. It’s such a contrast to what we’re doing on Everlasting, where the whole goal is to snatch the guy. The women behind-the-scenes—if a guy’s not gonna help with a goal of a career and who you are, then you can ditch him.
SGS: I think as a writer, you do that with every character, honestly. I would say that, for me, I can relate to almost every character on the show in some way. In terms of a young woman struggling to hold onto her integrity, yes, I can 100 percent relate to that. We really confront the reality of our characters, the women who have chosen work over relationships, in a pretty head-on, brutal way.
AE: Marti, how has fan interaction changed for you since you started in TV?
MN: It started actually on Buffy—it was really the beginning of fan interaction. There was a site called The Bronze and it was the only place where fans went to, and we would go on to The Bronze after episodes. We actually ended up having gatherings where we’d meet Bronzers because it was still safe. It was a small enough world. So that’s been part of what I’ve been doing for, god, over 18 years.
But now I think it’s really a delicate thing because you don’t want to spoil stuff for people and you don’t want to react too much, but you want to keep them feeling heard. So it’s this dance of, “I can’t tell you, I hear you’re really angry,” but knowing next week, whatever they’re talking about is going to change. You can just say, “Well, keep watching!” Usually you’re so far ahead that even if there’s a unanimous—the problem is, as you probably imagine, fans who aren’t necessarily writers will beg and yell at you for something that’s not dramatic. They’ll be like “Why can’t they be happy?” “Because that’s not a story! “Why can’t so and so get together? I don’t understand!” “Have you watched shows where that’s happened?”
AE: It’s very upsetting when lesbian couples break up because people want them to be happy.
MN: Yes, oh my god—we got totally attacked for [Brittany and Santana]: “Why are they breaking up? Why can’t a lesbian couple…” It’s like “They were together for a while—we’re just trying to mix it up!” We got a lot of flack, too, for that show for having a character who wasn’t, and now it seems not as big a deal but who wasn’t ready to identify as one thing or another. [Brittany] was like “I love who I love” and that was something that we were really wanting to do but at the time, there was a lot of people in the LGBT community that were like, “That’s not honest.” But she was sort of like agender. She’s like “I just go with the flow!” I’ve been reading up on that a lot because I have a friend who identifies as pan now and I was like “I don’t know what that is!” I was like “Does this have anything to do with Never Never Land, or?” So I literally went online like five or six days ago and then I got into the 56 different gender categories you can have on Facebook.
SGS: We have another moment on the show–the creator of the show, who is a character named Chet. He’s talking about, “We should have gay stuff—gay stuff is so now.” Then he stops himself and he’s like, “Actually gay stuff is two years ago—we need somebody trans.”
MN: Now it’s like “Transgender is so 2014!”
AE: I think asexual could be the next big thing.
MN: The thing about asexual is, again, not very dramatic! So much of good drama comes from getting laid or trying to.
AE: What do you think women who don’t watch The Bachelor will get out of Unreal?
SGS: For me, it’s forgiving yourself for some of the ambiguities of life and have some compassion for the fact that you might love princess stuff. It’s very much about the nuance of being a feminist in 2015 because they’re so many forms shaping us and it’s like you can know exactly who you are but need to exist in the world and be honest about what you respond to and need.
MN: Also I think it’s been far too long that there hasn’t been a show on television, for me, igniting discussion about media and things that we see. I have a 10-year-old daughter and you can’t make media go away, but you can teach people how to watch it critically and how to challenge the ideas of how the things you see on TV are. That’s why the show is Unreal—is it real? Is it not real? I think too many people are not pushing back on some of these traditional roles that keep getting modeled for, especially young girls, who then go out and think the goal in life is everlasting love and that’s a trap. If you’re lucky you get it but most of us bounce along and do our best.
Unreal premieres next Monday, June at 10/9c on Lifetime.