10 Truth Bombs From the Co-Creator of UnREAL

The Lifetime show that became an unlikely critical darling kicks off its second season today. Read on for our straight-talking set visit dispatch

Unreal tv show

Shapiro, flanked by UnREAL stars Constance Zimmer (L) and Shiri Appleby (far right) (Photo: Instagram.com/sarahgertrudeshapiro)

It’s the underdog that won a Peabody, pissed off Bachelor Nation host Chris Harrison and captured the hearts and minds of countless TV critics and enthusiasts. We were recently invited to the Vancouver set of UnREAL and with the Season 2 premiere just hours away, we’re sharing 10 killer insights from co-creator (and yes, former producer on The Bachelor) Sarah Gertrude Shapiro.

On pitching a “female Breaking Bad” to TV executives:
I think it was the perfect time for it and actually for me too, as a filmmaker. If this was 10 years ago, I probably would have been an indie filmmaker and probably wouldn’t be making TV. Since we’re in the Golden Age of television, or maybe the Platinum Age at this point, so many filmmakers, so many auteurs are choosing television. For me when I was creating the show, I totally had the option of making a feature because we won South By [Southwest with the short film Sequin Raze], but I wanted to make a TV show. That is what I wanted, to make a series. I think it was 100 percent the right time, right place.

On advice she received regarding her hesitation about doing the show at the Lifetime Network:
‘You can be one of 33 projects at HBO or one of 3 at Lifetime.’ So [I] just took a leap, and they took a leap on me because I was totally untested. So it was a great combination of a place that wanted to change and a person who really needed a chance.

On having a female-centric relationship–and no male lead:
One of the important things in pitching the show and selling the show it was always that they [Rachel and Quinn] are the primary relationship of the show, so they’re the couple. So if we’re following a couple (and not ever romantic or sexual at all), they have ups and downs and they have fights and they cheat on each other and get back together, so that was always the plan. They are the central relationship of the show. And the other thing for me is that is kind of effortless, because I’m sort of a workaholic so I’ve spent all of my 20s having really complicated relationships with people I work with, because I’m at work all the time.

On the set of UnREAL

On the set of UnREAL

On how much working in reality TV influenced the show:
The character of Rachel is 100 per cent informed by that time in my life, but the plot is 100 per cent fiction. It’s a fiction show; I’m a fiction writer. I got a job in reality TV to pay the rent.[Shapiro worked as a freelance producer on The Bachelor series.]

On the show’s feminist roots:
When women destroy other women, they destroy themselves eventually. Because if you start being really harsh to other women, inevitably you will turn it around on yourself. So one of the things I experienced when I was worked on The Bachelor is we would start talking about the women sort of like cattle, like, ‘She’s a 9 [out of 10], with a point for personality. That girl’s an 8. Oh she’s crazy, she’s a slut, she’s fugly, she’s stupid.’ We were just sorting them out because it was our jobs. And then we also, in terms of internalized misogyny, we also had to get inside the mind of the bachelor and also hang out with him a lot while we he was sorting through these women, and we started hearing kind of how guys talk to each other. Because they would talk to us like guys. So they’d be like “Yah that bitch is crazy, I would f-ck her but she’s f-cking nuts.” Or there’s this guy who’s like ‘Oh no she has a ton of FP.’ And I was like ‘Sorry what’s FP.’ And he said ‘Oh it’s fat potential.’ So he would evaluate girls based on whether or not they would get fat when they got married or had kids.

More about “FP”
As a producer on that show, you totally internalize that male gaze because you are looking at women that way. So you go home after working seven 16-hour days in a row in your crappy jeans and your crappy car and your stupid hoodie and you feel like shit and you look in the mirror and your like ‘Wow I’m a four with zero for personality’. You start thinking of yourself like one of the contestants.

On the scary-easy reality of landing your on-paper dream job and losing your soul to it:
“When you graduate from college and you’re 21 and 22, you’re so idealistic. You know exactly who you are, you know what you believe in, and the minute you have to earn a paycheque all of the sudden you’re like ‘Wellllll, maybe I can do that.’ I always thought it was funny in college you have these philosophical conversations about, ‘How much would it cost for you to torture another person? How much would another person have to pay you to do this or that?’ I thought what was so shocking is that when you actually have to pay the rent and get a paycheque it’s really like $1,500 a month without benefits. That’s what it took for me to torture another person. Where I was like ’25 million dollars. Or you can just throw me a bag of Cheetos and a paycheque and I’ll totally do it for you.’

On the contestants not being the butt of the jokes:
That was a founding principle of the show— everyone has to have a point of view and everyone has to think they are right. I think that cynicism is really lazy, and being cynical and judgemental is really lazy, and that’s why I avoid satire and spoof. It’s not that at all, because I just feel like I wouldn’t want to write that way and I think the goal of writing and communicating is furthering our humanity, or understanding each other better. That’s the idea. I just thought it was lazy writing and not a lot of point in being cruel to them.

On show-within-the-show Everlasting changing its format (ie: a female suitor) and Season 3:
I think that’s super possible, because it really is about the family behind the scenes and I think what we’re going to see in Season 2 is that their world is invaded by outside forces because there are people that own the network, and people that are brought in, and I think there’s a chance we’ll have a major shakeup in Season 3, if there is a Season 3. (There is: Constance Zimmer, who plays Quinn, confirmed the news on Instagram.)

On the state of reality TV and its audience:
I think when producers are casting reality shows, I think they just try to put together a chess board of people that will make good stories with each other. And I think that’s their job, and it’s not really fair to criticize them. It’s like if you don’t like hot dogs, stop buying them, you know? Everybody’s eating them, so somebody has to make them. I think that reality TV is not going to go away and part of making it is figuring out how to make a show with real people, which is hard.


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