Reality Bites: How 'UnREAL' Became a Runaway Hit for Lifetime

The story behind the network's gamechanging reality-TV takedown/workplace drama — and what's in store for Season Two

Constance Zimmer, left, and Shiri Appleby, center, in the Season Two premiere of 'UnREAL.' Credit: James Dittiger/Lifetime

It looks like a conventional reality dating show: A gaggle of beautiful girls in ball gowns pull up in limousines — or, if they’re very lucky, a horse-drawn carriage straight outta Cinderella — to a decked-out mansion, ready to meet their "suitor," a dashing British hotel heir who resembles an IRL Prince Charming. (Imagine The Bachelor filtered through a Disney-on-Ice princess extravaganza.) The usual suspects are all there: the pretty one, the funny one, the bitchy one, the cheerleader. You can practically smell the champagne and Shalimar wafting off the screen.

And then the cameras pull back, and a woman in a control room is hollering into a headset: "The first girl out of the carriage is always a 'wifey,' and that is not a wifey!" The whiteboard behind her already maps out who'll be this season's heroines and villains before a single rose has been given out; on set, a producer in a "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt preps contestants and later milks a would-be winner's abusive childhood for onscreen tears.

Welcome to the world of UnREAL, a funny, caustic take on romance shows that's hooked folks who'd never be caught dead watching them. Part pull-back-the-curtain deconstruction and part character-based workplace drama centered on a tough-talking alpha female showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her conflicted second-in-command Rachel (Shiri Appleby), UnREAL was one of last year’s bona fide breakout hits — the only new series who managed to win over viewers, critics and the Peabody Awards committee in one fell swoop. By making the people who turn out such slick, micro-managed shows the stars, folks got an inside look at how the reality-TV sausage was made that also explored the moral toll of making this kind of entertainment. "We don't solve problems," Rachel says. "We create them, and then point cameras at them." And should you think that success has mellowed the show as it goes into its second season, which kicks off tonight on Lifetime, its first post-accolades episode begins with a shot of the two antiheroines getting matching wrist tattoos reading "Money. Dick. Power."

"One of the things that always drove me crazy when I worked on The Bachelor," says co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, "is that women would come in, and they'd be attorneys. They would go on a date, and all they were supposed to talk about was donuts and kittens. Nobody ever talked about their jobs. I was like, 'You went to law school! That's part of you! You are a lawyer!'" After doing time as an associate producer on the romance-reality show for nine seasons over three years, a miserable, burnt-out Shapiro moved to Portland, Oregon to put the experience behind her. Then in 2013, her short film Sequin Raze — in which a reality-show contestant finds herself locked in psychological combat with a producer — won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW, and she began pitching the idea to networks as a TV show. "I was kind of on the Lena Dunham track," she says. "I was just hoping to sell my show to HBO or Netflix and move on."

It just so happened that Lifetime was working to recalibrate their brand, and made a strong play for the show. "I had a little bit of snobbery about [Lifetime], like everyone does," Shapiro admits. "And also, I was just really worried that once they got me, they wouldn't actually want me ... because I'm really dark and fucked up, and it's not going to change. But at another network, we might have been one of 30 things in development; at Lifetime, we were one of three. Plus I pitched a show with two female leads and I never even had to justify it — it was no problem for them." After the network paired her with Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Marti Noxon, the duo quickly started fleshing out the idea of the show within the show (entitled Everlasting) and the cast of manic, neurotic, romantically challenged and/or profanity-spewing characters who pulled the strings behind the scenes. The next thing she knew, everybody from Us Weekly to the New Yorker was singling the series out as a gamechanger.

But for all the skewering of reality-TV clichés and industry inside jokes, it's the unique relationship between Quinn and Rachel that arguably gives UnREAL its coal-black heart — a complex push-and-pull dynamic between two professional, driven, and equally screwed-up women that feels both empowering and enabling for each of them, presented with a complete lack of sentimentality. "Sometimes it's mother  and daughter, sometimes it's mentor and protegé," Appleby says. "It's a combination of all sort of things: 'I really do love you, and you're killing me, and this is painful.'" She laughs. "'I love you. And I'm going to take you down.'"

"I kind of came up with a rule of thumb about how Quinn and Rachel talk to each other," says Shapiro. "They should always talk to each other like Jesse and Walt on Breaking Bad, and not like, say, Serena and Blair on Gossip Girl. Jesse and Walt are talking about efficacy and work and strategy: get it done, don't fuck up, work harder, don't be an idiot. With Sabrina and Blair, it's: I want this boy, I don't think I'm pretty, and and you hurt my feelings. It was a get way to set the tone for the conversation. Quinn is never never in a million years going to say the words, 'I felt you hurt my feelings.'"

And despite the various emotional ups and downs their characters went through last season (humiliations, betrayals, passive-aggressive power plays, promotions), Season Two begins with Quinn and Rachel getting that aforementioned mantra inked into their skin — they're high on success, because they've finally sold the network on a season of Everlasting featuring a black suitor. Yes, UnREAL is about to dive into the national conversation about race and representation. "In the first couple weeks of the writers' room, we had the writers of color talk a lot about their experiences around some of the issues that we were breaking stories around," Shapiro says. "I feel like a person who's thought about race pretty actively throughout my life, but in those first couple weeks, I learned more than I ever could have imagined. We had some really, really uncomfortable conversations that I think were super productive for the show, and definitely for me as a person, too."

In the end, what's perhaps most remarkable about UnREAL isn't that it injects social commentary and a feminist sensibility into what's essentially an acidic, trash-talking takedown of Trash TV ("Some people say it encouraged them to watch The Bachelor," Shapiro claims, "and some people say that it made them never want to watch that  show, ever"). Rather, it's the way it plays into what both longtime Lifetime viewers and prestige-TV connoisseurs want from entertainment. It taps into a love of so-called "competence porn" characters — those who are absurdly good at what they do, no matter how messed up their lives are — and the audience's desire to see people on TV end up together, whether or not it's a good idea. "I think that's what it comes down to," Zimmer says. "All of these characters need love. They're just looking for it sometimes in the wrong places."