The season finale of UnREAL, a brilliantly dark satirical drama about a Bachelor-style reality show, airs tonight. For those who haven’t been watching (what are you watching...True Detective?), the show follows reality TV producer Rachel, who is struggling to reconcile her job manipulating female contestants on the dating competition show “Everlasting” with her feminist beliefs.
In addition to being great TV, UnREAL has made actual Bachelor host Chris Harrison so mad, which suggests there might be more Bachelor truth in it than UnREAL creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro would like to admit. I chatted with Shapiro over the phone last month about her Bachelor past (she was a producer for nine seasons in the early 2000s), her feminism, and what viewers can expect from season two. The following has been edited for clarity.
You were a Bachelor producer yourself years ago. What made you want to tell this kind of behind-the-scenes story?
I wanted to write a great character drama about a time in people’s lives when they’re acclimating to adulthood—kind of like Girls, but later, like mid-twenties, when you’ve already had a job and kind of sold your soul for a job. And some of the inspiration from my short film [Sequin Raze (2013), also about a Bachelor-type reality show] came from all the jobs I had along the way. I worked in fashion and advertising and reality TV, and I had moments in all those jobs where I kind of could not believe what I was doing, or how far it had gone. So it just turns out that as I was coming up with a great dramatic television show, reality TV was a great world to set the show in. But it wasn’t actually intended to be an exposé, which has been really interesting in terms of talking about it, because it was 100 percent not what we were after. It’s kind of like calling The West Wing and exposé on the White House. Obviously having worked in the world, it was nice to know what the wallpaper looks like, but that’s not what the show is about.
Rachel manipulates a scene between “Everlasting” contestants.
What drew me in is how dark the show gets right away. These female contestants on “Everlasting” are dealing with eating disorders, sexual assault, domestic abuse—mental health is really at the forefront of the show. Is reality TV really that dark?
You know, I don’t know, and I don’t think so—I don’t watch a lot of reality TV. These are issues that I think we’re really interested in talking about regardless of where they were happening, but definitely mental health is the biggest thing that we tackle, especially kind of talking about the whole effect on women’s mental health, in terms of body image and sort of empowerment and being in control of your own life. And that has been the link to the TV industry and the fashion industry and all the people who talk to women about who they are.
I read an interview with Natasha Wilson, who plays one of the contestants on “Everlasting”, where she admitted that before she was cast on UnREAL, her friends encouraged her to try out for The Bachelor.
Oh, I didn’t know that!
I thought that was so interesting. In your experience, what do you think women are looking for in going on reality TV? Is it always just to get into show business or become an actress?
I think it’s changed a little bit. When I was doing it, it was probably a little bit more innocent, I guess? Or a little more wide-eyed. The attention is definitely alluring, and then there were people who were genuinely intrigued by the idea of finding a great guy in a big city, because maybe they were from a smaller town. People say “Oh, they’re just trying to get famous, and they knew what they were signing up for,” but for some of the [contestants] on these shows, if you come from a really small place, you’re not exposed to a lot. So it is really exciting and a good opportunity in a lot of ways. You’re meeting people you never would have met. It’s a big world living experience for a lot of people.
Contestants on an “Everlasting” group date.
I just wonder how these contestants stay in shape when they’re drinking all day. What would you say is a typical day on a show like that?
I think anyone who’s worked on any set, not just reality TV, will be familiar with this. It’s like, Oh my god, set life. You’re eating crap, you’re super tired, your dinner is like Cheetos and donuts. Nobody’s really sleeping, and there are 15 hour days. But I think some of the people on these shows are in their early twenties, so I think that’s how people stay in shape when they’re eating and drinking all day. The metabolism. But yeah, it’s a super grueling industry, and it takes people who are really committed to stay in it.
Can you talk about what finally pushed you to leave and do your own projects outside of reality TV?
I never wanted to be in reality TV in the first place. I’ve been a writer since I was five, and I went to college for filmmaking. So I always wanted to do my own projects, but I think the thing for me was that it...you know, for some people working on those shows it’s actually really fun. They enjoy the travel and relationships with other people. But for me, just because I am a feminist, [The Bachelor] was really hard for me to work on. And I say this very dramatically, but it was like a vegan working in the slaughterhouse. That’s a little bit what it felt like. So I found that my morality, really my ethics, weren’t that valuable, and I didn’t feel good when I was doing it. It’s not true for everyone working on those shows, but it was really hard for me.
I’m not sure if you followed this season of The Bachelorette, but the whole storyline was that Kaitlyn had sex “too soon” and then had to admit it to everyone. It was crazy. Did it just bother you working on a show where you felt women had to fit a certain role?
Yeah I think for me it was about reinforcing gender roles that are really damaging and that I spent a lot of my life trying to change or navigate around. So the idea that girls have to be skinny and pretty and not too smart but smart enough and pure, and guys get to be raucous, big, and messy and broad and all of these things. The whole thing was set up in a way that it was perpetuating a belief system or a gender structure that I don’t really want to participate in. But I also 100 percent get why it’s really fun and why people watch it, because the princess fantasy is incredibly alluring. All that stuff is really fun. Watching people try to find love is psychologically fascinating. So while I totally get it...it was too hard.
What can you tell us about season two of UnREAL? Have you started filming yet?
We are so excited to dive in. We haven’t really started yet, but what we do know is that I think we’re going to stick with the “Everlasting” theme of the show. It obviously is still following Rachel’s journey through this world and kind of what happens to her next after the finale, and really big stuff happens for Rachel in the finale. So once you see that, the jumping off point will make more sense.
UnREAL airs tonight on Lifetime at 10 p.m EST.