When Lifetime's scripted dramedy UnREAL premiered last summer, it was as much of a surprise hit for the network as it was from the show’s co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro.
"Everyone says I’m like the 20-year overnight success story," Shapiro says.
UnREAL lifts the glitzy veil from reality TV dating shows to reveal the sadistic manipulation and vitriolic power struggles that go on behind the scenes—and Shapiro would know having spent nine seasons working as a producer on ABC’s The Bachelor. As a self-proclaimed feminist, Shapiro isn’t shy about admitting how counterintuitive it is for a Sarah Lawrence graduate to play the puppet master for female contestants all in order to make "good TV" and perpetuate the fairy-tale romance that society has constructed for women. What made it even worse for Shapiro was that she was actually really good at it.
Shapiro channeled that internal struggle in her 2013 short film Sequin Raze, which went on to become the inspiration for UnREAL, starring Shiri Appleby as Rachel (i.e., Shapiro, pretty much) and Constance Zimmer as her domineering boss Quinn. In addition to providing thoroughly crafted female leads, UnREAL has provoked meaningful commentary on ageism, mental health, sexism, and, of course, feminism. And season two isn’t shying away from the big issues either as race comes prominently into focus with a black suitor—something that’s never happened in the history of The Bachelor or The Bacherlorette.
With UnREAL, Shapiro has catapulted herself into the zeitgeist, simultaneously throwing her learning curve all out of whack: Aside from UnREAL and The Bachelor, Shapiro has just four other producing, writing, and/or directing credits to her name.
"I feel like my brain has grown new quadrants—just writing all day, every day for two years," Shapiro says. "The demands of a one-hour television show are super extreme in terms of how much story it requires, and the stuff I had done up until this point were indie films with not a lot of plot but a lot of feelings and emotions. A television show like this requires a shit-ton of plot and stories intersecting. There’s a lot of math to one-hour storytelling and that’s something that can be learned, but most people learn it over years and years and I just had to figure it out really fast."
And figure it out she did.
UnREAL became an instant favorite with critics—nabbing a gigantic 98% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes—and gave Lifetime’s portfolio a touch of much needed depth in a world of HBOs, Amazons, and Netflixs—but Shapiro doesn’t concern herself with all of that.
"I just try to keep my head down and ignore the hype pretty much," Shapiro says. "I’ve definitely seen other shows run into trouble because they try to imitate themselves or repeat whatever blew up Twitter the first season. I threw all of that out of my head and stayed inside the characters and thought about what they wanted and needed."
More to the point, as Shapiro will admit herself, it was more about what Rachel and Quinn wanted and needed.
"Shiri and Constance’s performances definitely informed how I created season two because I had always seen their relationship as the central relationship in the show, but once they were cast that just became even more evident because their chemistry is so incredible," Shapiro says. "Specifically, as a writer it’s really nice to know that Shiri can carry so much in her eyes and in her face. So there are a lot things that I do in looks and action lines in the script that in other cases I might put into dialogue."
With the character of Quinn, Shapiro is well aware of exactly how critical Zimmer is to the role—a feeling that stands out even more given the fact that Zimmer rejected the offer to play Quinn multiple times.
"It was totally out of left field for her and nobody knew who we were and I was some kid who had made a short film—it didn’t seem like the next logical career move [for Zimmer], I think," Shapiro says. "I saw so many people for the role of Quinn and it’s really easy for it to go in a direction that doesn’t work, which is sort of Disney Evil Queen. I had fallen in love with Constance off of her role in Entourage and also in House of Cards—[she’s] super dry and non-sentimental, but she can play vulnerable but also just be really biting."
For a show that was built on leaps of faith—Shapiro trusting that Lifetime would let her keep her vision of such an uncharacteristic show for the network, and Lifetime trusting a relatively unknown showrunnner—it doesn’t seem surprising that Zimmer finally caved and took a chance on a show that is arguably her finest work to date.
"I can’t think of another actress on television who can pull off half the shit she says. It’s really freeing as a writer to know that you can go balls to the walls with her and also that you kind of have to," Shapiro says. "My thing with Quinn is that it’s kind of like being on high-dive—once you’re up there, you can’t flinch. So when she’s says terrible, racist stuff you just have to go all the way because if you go halfway, it feels like this weird, ‘Wait, do they know that’s terrible?’ You have to go all or nothing with her. And so I think the great joy of coming into season two is that we know that Constance can pull it off and we can write the most outrageous shit for her and it’s really, really fun."
What that outrageousness translates into is the show’s pervasive dark tone and quintessential antiheroes in both Quinn and Rachel. Creating characters that are despicable at nearly every turn yet you still find yourself rooting for them is an art not every storyteller is gifted with. Shapiro workshopped that balance in her short Sequin Raze, the elements of which later became a pivotal scene in UnREAL’s pilot and subsequently set the overall twisted mood of the show.
"The thing that I focused on in the short film was this producer manipulating this contestant, and my goal was to make it so that you had equal compassion for the producer and the contestant and you couldn’t tell which one was bad or good," Shapiro says. "I often feel like anti-heroes get into this place where you’re like, ‘but they suck—there’s no reason to root for them.’ With Breaking Bad, Walt was always, ostensibly, doing it for his family and Jesse just is a kid who couldn’t win. You have to recognize the humanity in people or it’s not a story worth telling for me."
Season two of UnREAL premieres tonight at 10/9 C on Lifetime.