In the mid aughties, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro was a producer on The Bachelor—scheming behind the scenes to drum up all of the tears and dramz and boozy confessions that fans of the much-loved franchise have come to expect. And then she just couldn’t take it anymore, quitting the series because (as she told her boss at the time) she’d have to kill herself if she didn’t. She moved to Portland, Ore. and worked in advertising, but found she wasn’t quite able to put her years in the Bachelor mansion behind her. Three years ago she made a short film called Sequin Raze which eventually lead to Unreal, Shapiro’s Lifetime series about what goes on behind the cameras on a (cough, cough) totally fictional reality dating show called Everlasting, and let’s just say there are characters who make Chad look like Prince Charming.
Now in its second season (the finale is tonight), Unreal pulls double duty as both a brilliant satire and juicy AF drama, centred around the relationship between Rachel (a self-destructive producer loosely based on Shapiro, played by Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (her Cruella de Vil-esque boss, played by Constance Zummer). And if you don’t believe us, believe the Emmys: The pilot was nominated in the best writing category and Zimmer also got a nod for acting.
We talked to Shapiro about the Unreal scenario that perpetually gets the most feedback, using her manipulative powers for good and that time she almost hooked up with Bachelor Bob Guiney.
First off, congrats on the Emmy nominations. Were you glued to your computer on the morning they were announced, or are you one of those famous people who say they completely forgot it was nomination day because they were so busy meditating?
Ha! We had gotten a kind of tough love talk from one of our producers earlier in the week saying it’s not going to happen guys, so let’s manage our expectations here. So I was actually trying to stay off the Internet [on the morning of the nominations]. I was blasting Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and taking a shower. I didn’t want to know about anything or think about anything and then when I got out of the shower my phone was blowing up and ringing and ringing. For a second, I thought something was wrong and then it was just freaking out and being so excited.
Despite the two nominations, a lot of fans were pissed that the show didn’t get a best dramatic series award. Do you see that as a snub? And do you see Unreal as a drama?
I definitely do see it as a drama. It’s got a lot of comedy in it, but it’s been really important to defining the tone of the show to make sure that the jokes aren’t really jokes, but more painful situations that are funny. I also just think that the categories don’t really apply anymore. Shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black totally straddle the line. As far as being snubbed, we really weren’t expecting any nominations. Our run has been so mind-blowing and really we’re grateful for every day. Winning the Peabody Award [which Unreal did this spring]—I mean, what else can you ask for?
Is the Peabody kind of the thinking woman’s Emmy?
Yeah, exactly. Not that we wouldn’t have loved the Emmy nomination. Our sort of neck-and-neck competitor the whole time has been Mr. Robot, which is the boy version of a summer hit. We love that show and respect them a lot. We sort of knew that they were going to get nominated and we would have loved to get nominated with them.
For Season 2, which premiered in June, the suitor on Everlasting is black, something we haven’t seen on The Bachelor in a 20 season run. Season 2 also had a number of race-related subplots like the contestant who is groomed to be the “angry black woman,” and throughout both seasons a lot of comments are made about how not-white people don’t make it very far on Everlasting. Do you hope that exposing these realities might result in progress?
I think it’s an important thing to talk about. When we were discussing it in the writers’ room there was this feeling that it was a scary topic and super controversial, but that it would be a shame to if that meant we were too scared to talk about it, since it is this glaring problem in reality TV.
Do you think the majority of Unreal fans are also Bachelor fans? For me, so much of the fun from watching your show is finding out all of the behind-the camera truths.
I would say there are so many different types of people who walk the show. I’m always amazed that there are 50-year-old straight guys who love it, and I love finding that out. We’ve also heard from a lot of people who say that watching Unreal makes them enjoy The Bachelor more and we have people who have even started watching The Bachelor after watching our show because they want to see what it’s all about. And then we definitely have the haters and the hate watchers.
Would you say Unreal is crazier or less crazy than the real-life counterpart? Just to recap, on the show we have seen producers lie about their own personal tragedies to elicit tears from contestants, make up stories about what other girls are saying behind someone’s back, push alcohol like it’s going out of style, and even swap out a contestant’s meds.
I would say Unreal is less crazy. It’s funny because when I chat with people I worked with [on The Bachelor], they will remind me of things, and I’ll think, oh yeah. I won’t say what, but there are a couple of stories that are so bad, I couldn’t even put them on the show. One thing that’s really important is that we’re not actually pulling stories from my life. First and foremost I’m a writer.
Is there a particular detail that fans of the series want to talk to you about the most?
One of the moments we’ve gotten the most feedback on is this really small thing where Rachel is sleeping in a truck and putting on deodorant and flipping her underwear inside out because she doesn’t have anywhere to shower. It’s a small detail, but it really hit people and made them think wow, these producers are living like homeless people and producing these pretty princesses. What a twisted world.
I think people always assumed that reality TV was staged, but I don’t think they understand how much manipulation is involved. It’s not just staging. There are a lot of layers. You have to get real people to feel real feelings. They’re not actors, so you can’t hand them a script.
On Unreal, Rachel hooked up with one of the suitors. If you had to choose, which former Bachelor would you be most likely to do the same with?
Oh my god, I’ve never been asked that. In terms of who would be most likely, I almost hooked up with Bob Guiney. Everybody almost hooked up with Bob Guiney. He’s such a player, such a flirt. Who I would want to, I don’t know. I stopped watching the show after I left, so I don’t have as many people to choose from.
Your last season with the show was when Jen Schefft was The Bachelorette. I know a lot of your issues with the series are around sexism. Was it any better to see a woman calling the shots?
It’s interesting. I think The Bachelorette in theory could be kind of feminist, but it’s really not. It’s rife with double standards, it’s very very of awkward because there are 25 guys and one girl and she’s not really allowed to hook up with too many of them. The thing that I did like about it is that I think it has a better success rate than The Bachelor because women who are successful and busy actually do have a harder time finding husbands sometimes. Some of the women who came on really were ready to get married, so that was interesting. It was a lot harder to produce because it’s so much harder to get men to talk shit about each other and to get good sound bites. But I think men have changed so much since I was doing the show. Now they actually will perform.
Speaking of performing, I know you don’t watch anymore, but the most recent season of The Bachelorette had a villain named Chad who is now on Bachelor In Paradise and who acts like a complete lunatic. You watch what he does on camera and you think to yourself, they must be paying him to behave this way or something like that.
It’s been ten years since I worked on the show, so I really have no idea what they do anymore. That’s not me dodging the questions, I just really don’t know and I think it’s changed a ton. What I will say is that now that the tropes are so established, it’s almost like people cast themselves into those tropes. If they know they’re going to get a lot of attention for being the villain, they may be willing to be that. What’s interesting is that there can be real world, real life consequences. It can really impact your career.
In a profile about you in The New Yorker, you say that when you quit The Bachelor you told you boss that you would kill yourself if you didn’t. Did you really feel that way?
It was hyperbole, but to make a point that I really couldn’t stay. That was really what I had to say to get my boss to understand what I meant.
It’s been 10 years. Do you feel cleansed?
I think it’s all part of a journey and it’s well behind me. I also think it was specifically really bad for me. That show isn’t so bad for everyone who works on it. Some people really like it. I use the metaphor of a vegan working in a slaughterhouse. Because I was a feminist, working on that show was really hard. It’s not objectively evil.
It seems like you have a real gift for manipulation. Almost like you were maybe too well suited to the job. Do you feel like you have to use your powers for good?
Yes! After I quite, I always joked that I had sworn off the dark arts and I just won’t manipulate people. In navigating the television industry and promoting the show, it’s important to be able to be charming when you need to be, but I’m still really cognizant about integrity and pretty much saying what I mean.
What do you say to Chris Harrison who called Unreal “really terrible” and said that nobody watches it?
You know it’s weird, I kind of don’t believe in revenge. First of all I was flattered that he even knows about it. People have asked me if [the success of the show] makes me feel like, Gotcha, I told you so, but that’s really not it. I still have a lot of respect and love for the people I worked with. I’m not trying to stick it to anyone—I wanted to tell a story.
And yet I can’t help but notice that the Chris Harrison character on Unreal is a totally vapid buffoon.
I was actually thinking that that’s maybe why he was so offended, but it’s not even necessarily based on him. The actor who plays that role is so great and a great improviser, so we’ve kind of built the character around him.
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