You have to be able to tell your truth in a way that feels that you’re putting something on the line. For a long time I started to feel like, Wow I’m not allowed to do that anymore.
Lifetime’s critically beloved new sleeper series UnREAL is a pocket symphony of exploded conventions. Co-created by newcomer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and veteran Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy), the show rips the sequined skin off the fairytale princess myth driving many reality dating shows to depict how, with manipulative inhumanity, these programs make such cruel, addictive sausage.
UnREAL centers on the morally vexed, exploitive people – mostly women – behind an ironically fictional reality show called Everlasting. Drawing from her own experience working on The Bachelor nearly a decade ago, Shapiro shot a short film upon which the series is based. The series follows Rachel (Shiri Appleby), Everlasting’s cunning, soul-broken assistant director, who, despite a convulsing conscience, masterfully executes the inhumane, ratings-ramping designs of her boss, showrunner and reality Cruella De Ville, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer).
That women write the show is not unexpected, but the brutally realistic way their characters speak and behave pushes the envelope in ways that rival similarly revolutionary shows like Orange is the New Black (incidentally, OITNB showrunner Jenji Kohan is Noxon’s sister-in-law). Cable-only quotables like, “Stop thinking with your clit,” and, “This job is Satan’s asshole,” are not just regularly uttered, they’re said with an owned gusto rarely afforded female characters, proving, despite television’s historic paucity here, chicks are really good at being bad. The fact that the show airs on Lifetime, a “women’s channel” known more traditionally for campy melodrama, is another of the show’s revelations and part of the networks continued bid to transform its image. Though ratings for the show have not been massive, the critical outpouring for UnREAL has already won the show a second season.
Shapiro and Noxon spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about how they found an unlikely, but happy home at Lifetime, why, even though the bully culture of the worst dating shows is despicable, they themselves still can’t help sometimes wondering if, “he’d pick me,” and how, with this show, they weren’t interested in an easy, cheap spoof of the reality genre, they wanted to tell a real story about an unreal world.
Where did the initial seed for this idea come from? I know Sarah worked on The Bachelor.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Actually, I wrote and directed a short film called Sequin Raze that went to South by [Southwest], and I basically pitched the show based on that short film. That [film] was kind of based on a conglomeration of moments in my life where I had day jobs that got me into places I couldn’t believe I was morally. I worked in advertising and fashion and reality TV along the way. In Sequin Raze there was a 20-minute scene between two people played by Anna Camp and Ashley Williams [that was] pretty much just psychological warfare – the short is kind of encapsulated in the pilot when Rachel is by the pool with the villain, Britney…That is sort of the scene that’s closest to the short film, and it was a great place to explore these moments in our lives where we sort of have Faustian dilemmas and have to reckon with who we've become.
Right. But not everyone works on a reality show.
Shapiro: No, not everyone.
That’s a special level of Faustian. How much exaggeration of your real experience on reality TV is there here?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: I don’t know if exaggerate is the word. But the truth is it’s 100 percent fictional. We wrote like you would any script, with a giant white board, dry erase pens, lots of Trader Joe’s snacks. We set out to write a great, dramatic television series, and I think that – Marti, obviously, jump in – it was just such a great world to set the show in, because it’s a really rich world of people who are trapped in a fishbowl and are all looking for love. The experience is authentic thematically, and we did research on what the industry is like now, because I had a day job 10 years ago, so I’m not even current with how it works. But the feedback we’ve gotten since the show’s aired is that it’s really, really close and pretty authentic. We definitely took dramatic license, just in terms of how the world functions. We’re not literally sticking to how the editing process works or anything like that.
How did Marti become involved?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: I actually pitched this show to Lifetime to Nina Lederman with Sally DeSipio, who is the head of entertainment at the ad agency I was working at, Wieden+Kennedy. She knew Nina for many years…Nina reached out to Marti, and I stalked her into actually coming in to watch the short film. And Marti can take it from there.
So were you actually stalked Marti? Did you feel like you were being pressured?
Marti Noxon: I was a little stalked, yeah. I developed with Lifetime a couple of times, and ultimately it kept feeling like my worry was what they were doing wasn’t a good fit. But I thought Nina was really smart and I knew that they wanted very much to break some new ground, they wanted do something different. But in the past that hadn’t panned out for them, so I was a little cynical.
I’d actually just come back from a trip to India, and I had some crazy virus that I caught there, and I thought, you know, I might be dying. [Nina] kept saying, “You need to see this short, you need to see this short.” And I said, “I don’t want to give you whatever I have. Can’t you send me the short, and I’ll watch it at home?” And very smartly she said, “No, I want to sit in the room with you and watch it and see your reaction, and talk to you right after that happens.” Which I thought was very specific and kind of annoying. Finally, we made that happen. I went in, and I was blown away. I probably felt exactly how Nina wanted me to feel, which this was this was an opportunity because of the tone that Sarah had gotten and how real it felt – ironically – that I could only have dreamed of. Because as much as we have our guilty pleasure television, I felt like it had grown into such a masochistic, bully culture in so many of these shows – not all of them – but there was a genre of reality television that was so hurtful to people. And Sarah’s short kind of took it down.
The first thing I said to her was, “If the tone of the short is the show you want to make, I can’t say no, but if you want to water it down, I’m not interested.” And she's like, “No, this is what we want to do, this is why we bought it.” That’s how Sarah and I ended up having a meal, and our first conversation was so great because we agreed on so many things. We both felt really strongly that the easy thing to do was a satire or parody, and in a way that had already been done. What hadn’t been done was just telling the story. Telling the truth of how this thing works.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Obviously, when I was pitching to Nina and she pretty much bought it in the room, I had a lot of hesitations and fears in terms of Lifetime as well, because it wasn’t where I was expecting to find a home for it. Like Marti is saying, what was important to me was keeping the tone and luckily we had an artifact to refer to, it wasn’t like we were imagining that we were agreeing. So I was able to ask some really specific questions, like, “You’re really okay with low lighting and no makeup, and horrible costumes and all that stuff?”
The film had gotten into South by Southwest – I hadn’t been to South by, I didn’t have an agent. I had obviously imagined pitching in my dream to HBO or Netflix or Showtime or whatever, and I hardly knew anyone in town. So when I called [to ask the couple of people I did know in town what I should do, the feedback was that passion is really important – and Nina had that. I sort of just took a leap of faith based on Nina, and she took a huge leap of faith on me, obviously. Then [Nina] really stuck her own neck out to bring Marti in. It was sort of like holding hands and trusting each other that we meant what we said.
How many writers are on the show?
Marti Noxon: We had a full room, with a couple of freelancers. At certain points we had six or seven people in the room.
Marti’s history is well known, particularly on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for that acerbic, sarcastic, rat-tat-tat dialogue style, with strong female characters, and that seems on display here as well. How much influence has Marti had on this tone, or was it just there with your short and this was a nice fit?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: We had a little bit of a Vulcan mind meld. For me, the short [film] is pretty brutal – it’s definitely sardonic. It’s unrelenting, and it’s really, really brutal. Marti just brought a lot of pace and a lot of humor. She taught me a lot about the economy of language and that sometimes it’s okay to have characters really say what they mean. Because the short was all subtext – the whole thing, nobody was saying what they meant and it was like five layers. There are minutes of non-verbal communication and triple cutting – it was very subterranean.
The thing that was a big leap for me was the plot that a one-hour drama demands. Marti is so incredible at that in terms of keeping it really entertaining and fun, and having a lot of wit [while also] slicing through and getting to the point. I had a fear of being understood. I've noticed that a lot – sort of hiding in artsy-ness or vagueness. You can hide behind the idea that, “Oh if they didn’t like it it’s because they didn’t get it.” But there’s a bravery in just saying, “No, this is really what we’re doing.” It’s clear and cognizant. Marti bringing that crystallizing vision – bringing it into a really fast-paced plot that’s super entertaining, but still has an edge and the weird discomfort of the short, was a really great.
Would you say one of you is more brutal? There’s the tone of the dialogue and the plot – the stuff that’s going on is pretty brutal shit here.
Marti Noxon: Pretty despicable. I don’t think we could say who is the bringer of that. It’s funny you know, Sarah – if I didn’t know that she had had that [reality] experience, I never would have believed some of the things that people said and did. But once I embraced that, I said, “This is the world. People are despicable. Our challenge here is to make the most despicable actions in some weird way sympathetic.”
We both have a very dark pirate heart. So when one of us would come up with something where we were like, “What if?” There’s still some “what if?” coming up in future episodes. We were unafraid to talk to each other in terms like, “If you think that’s bad, what if we did this?”
Have there been a moments of concern where you felt you might have gone too far?
Marti Noxon: I would say there were a number of times where we wondered, will people go there with us? But at the same time the best shows on TV, they take that leap. We kept talking about shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, and any show that has really strong anti-heroes. The difference for us is that we were dealing with women, which is maybe part of the reason people respond to the show so strongly, ‘cuz they haven’t seen that much of that.
My sister-in-law is Jenji Kohan – my brother is married to her. She broke that ground with Weeds in a way that nobody else had – and now, of course, with Orange [is the New Black]. [But] there are not very many shows where you have female characters, who are so layered and straight up bad. They're not good people, but they want to be better. That’s the unifying factor with all these anti-heroes. As long as you ground them in a sort of sympathetic backstory, you can go to those places, and you hope that people will go there with you. Sarah, I don’t know if you feel this – after we knew what our marching orders were, we really believed that they meant it, I don’t think we ever wanted to pull back.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yeah, I would say what was really off-limits for us was cynicism and spoofing. Those were off-limits. We put a faux pas on spoofing. The show walks the razor’s edge. For us, spoofing is just lazy and has already been done, not interesting and too easy. Cynicism is just not good writing. When we had our first date over sushi – which I still remember very fondly – one of the things Marti and I really bonded on was that this premise, this world, this show, really doesn’t work if you don’t have equal compassion for the contestants and the producers. Making fun of girls who go on reality shows is so simple and cruel, that it’s nothing we endeavored to do.
Marti Noxon: I agree. Because the problem is, some shows already do that. They already make fun of the contestants, that’s what those shows are. They're already kind of dark-hearted in a way, where they encourage people to bully the contestants. I’m talking about a certain genre – there are genres of reality that are much more about skill and talent – but there's a genre that’s really just about being cruel. It's bully television. Both of us were like, "Let’s get to the heart of that.”
Also, we talk a ton about sexual politics and this idea that there's a reason Rachel’s wearing a "This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt in the first episode. Because both Sarah and I can really relate to the idea that you can have ideals, but then when you try to live your life, it’s not that simple. You want to say, “I’m doing it right for women, and I’m standing up for the right causes.” But the truth is, you can get into so many situations where you either feel compromised or you want to be like a pretty, pretty princess. Somewhere deep inside of us, as much as we “despise” these shows – the first time I watched The Bachelor, by the end I was like, “Would he have picked me? Would he want me? I think I could win.” You know what I mean? I was under that condition of thinking there was only one magical person that could come into my life and save me, and that’s the fantasy that gets perpetuated by these shows. We both agreed really early on that in the first season [that was] one of the ideas we really wanted to go at.
You want to blow that shit up?
Marti Noxon: Yeah.
There are a number of unique aspects of this show – the mere fact that it’s on Lifetime, the fact that it’s a scripted show about reality TV, and then also the fact that these female characters, like Quinn, say stuff that would make Rust Cole from True Detective blush. You know what I mean? What's the freshest thing to you that this show is doing?
Marti Noxon: To me, there are two things: one, we have been very ruthless in letting these female characters live in both worlds – where they’re despicable, but also sympathetic. That is something you don’t get to see on TV that much. You get to see it with men a lot, but not so much as women. So that feels really fresh.
The second thing, a key reason people are responding so strongly to it is almost every viewer who watches reality television plays the game of, what here is real and what is put on? How does this work? They like the feeling that they're playing along almost. Like that was obviously set up, is that drama real? Or is that drama not real? Everybody's been kind of dying to know what happens behind the scenes on shows like Real Housewives or The Bachelor? Here we’re saying, “You know what? It's really messed up. Yeah, you should feel that when you watch these shows. These are real people, and the consequences of being on television as a real person who is placed into playing a role, are severe.”
As women, as writers, does living in this era of Orange is the New Black, post-Weeds, does it actually feel like a long-in-coming relief to be able to be dirty, despicable and real with women characters you write? Is it just the mood right now, or have you yearned for this for a long time?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: My short answer is, fuck yeah.
That’s what I was hoping for. Thank you.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Yes. Fuck yes.
Marti Noxon: My answer is a tiny bit longer because I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, [but] yes. Fuck yes. I agree. I really had to leave network television, and it’s not an indictment of shows that are popular on network television. The problem is I felt I don’t fit there. The things that I want to say, even the things that I learned on Buffy, they don’t apply there. They don’t want us to be that real. The rule in the room at Buffy was, as much as this is a genre show, the feelings and the journeys have to be really personal and they have to hurt, you know? You have to be able to tell your truth in a way that feels that you’re putting something on the line. For a long time I started to feel like, Wow I’m not allowed to do that anymore. People want me to write the fast style, easy, quickly resolved bullshit. That’s not why I started writing. I was so lucky to get my first break in a world where that wasn’t what we were asked to do. So I started to feel like there was no place for me in television, and I left for a long time. I wrote movies, which was really great and it allowed me more time to be at home with my kids. I wrote a pilot on spec, and it was exactly where I was at that moment. I wasn’t writing to entertain anybody. I was writing to say something that felt real to me about where I was as a woman and as a person in 2000 and whatever, and suddenly, there was a home for that. So fuck yes. It’s about time.