Lifetime is pulling the curtain back on reality TV, and we are loving it.
The network's new drama "UnREAL" exposes the behind-the-scenes drama of a "Bachelor"-type reality series, from producers that manipulate the contestants and play with their emotions to the staged scenarios and manufactured reactions. And if you think any of this is too fantastical to be true, think again. The show's creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked on ABC staples "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" for nine seasons before going on to create the fictional world of "Everlasting" for Lifetime.
"It's inspired by the moral crossroads that I’ve come to in my life than actual events," Shapiro told MTV News during an interview. "I've had day jobs that for one reason or another are the opposite of me. I started off in fashion and then I worked in reality TV and then I worked in advertising and it was a culmination of these moments where I had, in all of those different jobs, feeling like I was doing something that I really opposed or like didn’t believe in and trying to figure out where my line was as I became an adult and learned how to pay my rent and just survive."
"And it’s just taking those moments and realizing the reality TV genre is just a really rich place to set a show," the 37-year-old added. "It’s like a fantastic landscape, because it’s like a fishbowl where everyone is looking for love and they can’t get out, and it’s covered in sequins and peonies and dresses, which I love too."
"UnREAL" isn't just addictive for its behind-the-scenes dirty deeds, voyeuristic sex scenes and morally murky decision-making, it's also got two kick-ass women at the center: morally conflicted field producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer), an ambitious executive producer with her eye on the top prize: ratings. And with two accomplished female creators, Marti Noxon and Shapiro, at the helm, in many ways "UnREAL" is a step in the right direction for women in Hollywood, many of whom have had their voices silenced by the industry and the boys' club that dominates it.
"The show is based on a short film that I wrote and directed that I don’t think has any male characters except for a male camera guy," Shapiro said. "I think that both Marti [Noxon] and I have written really strong women in the past, and it just really wasn’t even a question to put two females in the lead. It was so funny to have people point it out in the beginning because I was like 'What’s the big deal, you know?'"
"But the interesting thing for me was when I was pitching the show around, and I imagined going to Netflix or HBO or Showtime, and when I pitched to Lifetime, Nina Lederman -- who's the president of Lifetime -- was so incredibly passionate about it," she added. "She pretty much wanted to buy it in the room, I was actually really taken aback and shocked and surprised, because I thought it was such a dark show for them. While it might seem cool, once she realized it was that dark and twisted she wouldn’t actually want to work with me. And she just assured me that again that no, that’s what they really wanted. And I kind of just took a giant leap of faith in believing in her and just taking her for her word and she definitely took a giant leap of faith on me because I was pretty untested in one hour drama television."
After three years of reality TV, which ultimately pushed her to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion, Shapiro was ready for a new challenge. Lucky for her, she had a knack for writing characters, something that served her well on the set of some of TV's most pervasive reality shows.
"The most surprising thing for me about what a one hour drama really demands is just an absolute kind of plot," she said. "I'm a character writer by nature, so I write the details of a person and how they’re feeling first. I’m very much into motivation and subtext and themes and all that sort of stuff -- very inner things. And what I learned very quickly is for a one hour drama to move along there needs to be a ton of plot, like somebody slept with somebody and there's all those twists and turns."
Rachel, being the emotional center of the series, but that doesn't mean she's perfect. The sardonic producer speaks mostly for the audience. She knows that what she's doing is morally wrong -- like lying to a contestant about the severity of her father's health issues, or manipulating another contestant into losing her cool (and her mind) during a one-on-one interview -- but she does it anyway. Why? Because she's really effing great at her job.
"When we were creating that character, it was really important for us to understand that Rachel can’t be all high and mighty and be like, 'I hate this, this is bad for the world,'" Shapiro said. "There's got to be a reason why she’s there. So we needed to point out that she's getting something out of it, she doesn’t have another identity. She doesn’t have anything else she’s good at in the world. I think it's really addictive to get rewarded for something."
"For now, she's stuck, and I think that's pretty relatable," she added. "I know so many people who are just stuck in jobs that they don’t leave, but it’s just part of the human experience, because we all need a place to show up every day, and if you have any financial responsibility in your life, you need a job."
As a producer, Rachel may get rewarded by way of cash bonuses, which Shapiro said certainly stretches the truth just a bit. Her demanding boss Quinn, however, runs the show, gets the ratings and puts in the hours -- but doesn't get the credit she deserves. In fact, it's discovered that she was the actual creator of "Everlasting," a title that is currently held by a middle-aged dude named Chet. According to Shapiro, the gender dynamic of "UnREAL" is pretty well aligned with the industry as she knows it.
"I don’t totally know the landscape now, but I can say that in my experience, there are a ton of women actually doing the work, there just aren't a ton of women getting the credit," she said. "Even in the 'Everlasting' paradigm, there's the character of Chet who doesn’t really do anything but is still kind of the big boss, and he’s the one that gets all the credit. There are women that work really hard that are workhorses and workaholics that work 90 hours a week and guys that work a lot less and get a lot more credit."
While reality TV may be subjected to the same kinds of sexism women face in Hollywood on a daily basis, the barrier to entry for reality TV is a lot lower than that scripted television, something Shapiro said is great for aspiring filmmakers, male and female, who just want to get the experience.
"It's a much easier part of the industry to get into," Shapiro said. "In my experience a lot of reality crew and reality producers are sometimes the kids who couldn’t afford to go to film school but they really love film and want to be doing documentaries or filmmaking and they're really cool, hardworking people who just aren’t fancy enough to be in indie film. I think that lower barrier to entry kind of makes reality TV that populist genre in front of and behind the camera."
It's not for everyone, though. After three years and more than nine seasons on the job, Shapiro quit "The Bachelor" after her own moral conflicts made her physically ill. "I think for me it was realizing that my morals aren’t fluid that they actually are real and that they’re physical," she said. "I get physically sick if I act against them. It really feels bad in my body when I’m doing something I don’t believe in."
And reality TV enthusiasts beware: a job in reality television may put you off the genre indefinitely. Just ask Shapiro.
"I think it’s kind of one of things where people who've worked in hot dog factories, they don’t eat hot dogs," she said. "It’s a little too much for me. We pay attention to it a little for the show, but I don’t actually watch it."
Regardless of whether or not Shapiro will indulge in the guilty pleasures of reality TV binging again, she doesn't regret her experience. "I learned so much about people and who I am and what I will and won’t do. And I learned a tremendous amount about storytelling. I’m much, much stronger for having gone through that."