In the past, I’ve talked about how certain movies stick with you long after the credits roll, but until recently that concept has never been applied to television. This, by the grace of the TV gods, has changed. Every channel you turn on has a range of shows that are shining examples. These shows go beyond the beautiful faces and base jump off the highest peak with groundbreaking story. The one I can’t stop thinking about is Lifetime’s UnReal.
I have history with this show, one that has prioritized my attention like none other. Having met and chatted with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the mastermind behind the show, I have been left in awe. She is such a talent, a strong female that has done what she wants to do no matter what, and she’s easily becoming my role model.
I’ve wanted this show to succeed for her, but what I got was a show that has encompassed a plethora of emotions and genres into one hour drama. At this year’s ATX Television Festival showrunner Stacy Rukeyser and Shapiro were on hand, at a sold out panel, to discuss the phenomenon the show has become.
The Season 2 finale was several weeks ago, and I’m just now able to surface from the emotional tug of war it revealed. On one hand you can’t believe the writers went there. Yet, the ending was the only logical way to continue, and it achieved what it set out to do. In a fucked up way, it made sense.
“We wanted to explore (in season two) what would Quinn have to offer Rachel in order for her to stay,” Rukeyser said. “People figure out how to be and how to get ahead on this show, but where do you abandon your loyalties and morals?”
“Our people (the characters) are lost, and they don’t know who to be,” Shapiro added.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil it. The important thing is what Shapiro and Rukeyeser were able to do with this season. They pushed the button on an already controversial (non-conformist) storyline further than what audiences have ever seen, and stayed true to the essence of UnReal.
Shapiro has been very open about the fact that she sees the world in a dark way, and she’s always going to write what she feels to be true. In what seems to be a fairy tale situation, she was able to find a home and cheering squad within Lifetime. They trust her vision which allowed her to make the show she wants to make. Season 2 is proof that if you let writers write their characters’ own path, beauty will always be found at the end.
The beauty that has been found in Season 2 was by taking an even more introspective look into the dark world of manipulation within reality. The writers gave us a black suitor, handled the race and social issues with dignity all the while digging the biggest hole for our beloved leads. We got to see inside the souls of Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby), surrounding us with darkness and warmth, allowing the audience to find a partner within these women.
We were able to see these women in ways we’ve never imagined. We saw them at their most vulnerable, at their most powerful, and at their most loyal. This isn’t a show about perfect women who run a cut-throat business of reality television, instead it’s a journey of strong women living their life the best way they can. There is a method to their madness, one they share and understand. It’s not about creating a blank woman for everyone to connect to, it’s about setting up situations that validate the complexity of life. That in and of itself is beautiful.
There was the question of whether or not the characters of Quinn and Rachel were likable. The writers never pandered to the acceptance of them, but instead focused on creating women you could trust. Rukeyeser mentioned at the panel that her mentor said that the way to counter the comment about being unlikable is by giving them vulnerability. Season 2 is a testament to that and to seeing their huge hearts they try to hide.
As much as Season 2 focused on Rachel and Quinn conquering their world, the ground work was laid to enhance the other players within. In a situation where half the cast were new, the originals [Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), Madison (Genevieve Buechner), Chet (Craig Bierko), and Jeremy (Josh Kelly)] provided the darkened soul of the “Everlasting” sphere. We saw the roller coasters these characters rode, and the eventual crash and burn. There was never competition for air time between these characters, instead they complimented each others’ paths. In the end, you realize that you cannot have one without the other, and for better or worse, it’s all meant to be.
Shapiro and Rukeyeser also discussed the elephant in the room: females writing strong females. What was frustrating to them, myself included, is the fact that it’s a non-issue, or at least it should be. This show is about a behind the scenes look at a reality dating game and all the horrors that it creates. Rukeyeser went as brilliantly far as to point out that if this was a show about male producers the question would never be asked.
“With season one, we never thought it was revolutionary. They were complicated fucked up women, we are complicated fucked up women, it felt real,” Rukeyeser said. “It was a wake-up call to know that this really does matter to people, you’re inspired to take it to the next level.”
This show has become a beacon of hope. UnReal is a show unlike anything else on television, on a channel that is willing to trust creators and their talent. Shapiro has become a role model, whether she knows it or not. This is a talented woman who started with an idea and created this unbelievable display of conflicting and contradictory emotions.
She stayed true to what her vision was and proved that that simplistic gesture is the most important thing to a creator’s soul. The force of nature that is Shapiro and her unfaltering integrity provides hope for aspiring writers, that if they stay authentic, even with a dark vision like UnReal, their opuses will be heard.
I have never been more excited for an Emmy telecast in all my years of television watching. The jury has finally recognized that there are so many other shows that have produced amazing work, but the one that makes my heart sing the loudest is the Supporting Actress in a Drama; the impeccable Constance Zimmer. Zimmer has constructed one of my favorite characters in the last five years and provided Quinn with depth that makes the character beautiful.
I can’t fathom where the next season is going to take these characters, or myself, but you better believe I’m ready for it. It’s hard to think about the possible paths they could take, mainly because you know it’s not going to be easy on any of us. Let’s not forget that Season 3 was greenlit before Season 2 even aired. This means that the writers were able to set in motion components this year that will explode in 2017.
I couldn’t be more excited for this crew, cast and production alike. They have proven that being true to yourself and allowing the heart of a character to come out can lead to something great. In a fabricated world where the happy ending was constructed for only a few, the unhappily ever after awaits us all.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images provided by Lifetime