“Money. Dick. Power.” Those are the priorities that newly promoted showrunner Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her jaundiced mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer) get tattooed on their wrists in the opening scene of UnREAL’s Season 2 premiere on June 6. After seizing control of Everlasting, the Bachelor-based show-within-the-show, from its coked-out creator Chet (Craig Bierko), the two women set out to shape and mold their behemoth baby. Upon Rachel’s suggestion, they decide to introduce something, or rather someone, who’s never been on Everlasting (or The Bachelor) before: a black Suitor.
“There was talk about doing a female character for Season 2, like a Bachelorette kind of thing,” explains Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who created UnREAL with Marti Noxon. “[But] my gut was like, ‘That just doesn’t feel as exciting or as pressing.’ For me, there’s hardly any conversation that’s more important right now than race, specifically Black Lives Matter. What we’re dealing with [on UnREAL] is how media images of men of color affect these issues.”
But the second season’s focus on race won’t crowd out the searing feminist critique that garnered UnREAL fervent critical acclaim and Lifetime its first taste of prestige attention. The swirl of hot pinks, lush greens, and sequined sparkles on the show’s Vancouver set — meant to look “over-the-top nouveau riche,” according to Shapiro — serves as the sunny California Mediterranean backdrop for the ethical grime and sleazy cynicism required to work behind the scenes on Everlasting. UnREAL’s spotlight on the darkest corners of the TV industry, especially as they pertain to women’s emotional exploitation, earned it a Peabody Award and became the cornerstone of Lifetime’s new makeover as essential scripted television.
For her follow-up, Shapiro says, “we’re exploring the fantasy of what it’s like when women try to live like men." Quinn and Rachel’s genuine but ultimately toxic friendship — or is it their toxic but ultimately genuine friendship? — falls apart as their former lovers, Chet and Rachel’s cameraman ex Jeremy (Josh Kelly), decide they’re going to react to the women’s rise in the worst possible way. In other words, UnREAL’s sophomore season looks as if it’ll tackle throbbingly uncomfortable subjects and situations in its usual piercingly thoughtful way, by exposing the painful realities that are papered over by both the media and our own ideals.
MTV News spoke to Shapiro and four of UnReal’s core cast members — Appleby, Zimmer, Bierko, and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, who plays the gay, African-American producer Jay — over the phone and on the aggressively shimmery, Vegas-meets–Pier 1 set, where they discussed what we can expect from summer’s most deliciously brutal show, especially related to race, feminism, and the frightening recoils against progress.
Black Love Matters
Shapiro’s past work as a producer on the Bachelor franchise gives UnREAL its credibility as an (admittedly exaggerated) exposé of the manipulations necessary to package a group speed date into a network show. But what give UnREAL its spiky, dishy intellect are its revelations of the biases and assumptions that go into telling the same old kinds of love stories that Everlasting has told so far.
Foremost among those informal rules are that black men — and the interracial relationships their race implies — aren’t viable romantic leads. “Living on the coast, it’s really easy to forget that there’s so much bigotry still alive in this country,” argues Shapiro, citing the furor over the 2013 Cheerios commercial with a biracial family. “Whether or not we want to admit it, there’s still a big [taboo around] black men with white women.” (For his part, The Bachelor host Chris Harrison -- no fan of UnREAL -- obliquely pitted ratings against “social responsibility and relevance” in a podcast interview last month when asked about his show’s lack of an African-American male lead, as if diversity couldn’t also draw audiences. Perhaps as a kind of payback against Harrison’s public denigrations against UnREAL, Quinn shows extra cruelty to Everlasting’s dummy emcee [Brennan Elliott] this season.)
This season’s Suitor is, as many black pioneers in white-dominated fields have had to be, unassailable. Britt’s NFL quarterback Darius Hill is on a redemption tour after his frustrated “Bitch, please!” at a female reporter is interpreted as misogyny. “Darius is maybe the least cynical person on the show,” Shapiro says. “He feels a little bit like a caged lion because he’s overmanaged by his people, but I think he’s basically a good guy who just hasn’t found himself because his life has been really controlled. He’s the first black quarterback on his team, so he’s felt a lot of pressure to keep things pretty squeaky clean. He’s a super-sweet gentleman, super-charming, with a megawatt smile, an insane body, great with the ladies and a good guy.” As for B.J. Britt, the actor who plays Darius, Shapiro winkingly assures us that “they’re the same; they have a lot in common.”
The showrunner says she was “really scared of doing the race thing” when she first came up with the idea. But, like Rachel, she wants to push for diverse stories on TV. Shapiro recalls telling her writers, “It has the potential to be incredibly awkward and probably problematic, but this is what’s most exciting to me in terms of what we can do with our platform.” Right from the premiere, we can see how a white-dominated media, in the form of Quinn, exploits racial stereotypes to provoke outrage -- and how black creatives find pockets where they can subvert the game from within. Quinn sees Ruby the BLM protestor (Denée Benton) as an “angry black woman,” and Jay and Ruby work together to reinterpret her persona as a “strong black female.”
The other contestants include a Southern gal in a Confederate flag bikini (Lindsay Musil), a football-royalty “wifey” (Kim Matula), and a former pageant queen with the potential to become a black wifey (Meagan Tandy), a.k.a. a “blifey.” But don’t expect a dry senior thesis on race from UnREAL. “People are scared of the unknown,” says Bowyer-Chapman. “The beautiful thing that UnREAL is doing with this season is that Darius is viewed as a huge deal for the first couple of episodes, especially from the powers that be. [The network] thinks he’s going to change the show entirely, that the audience isn’t going to tune in. And then we see, within the first couple of episodes, that it’s just life as we know it. Once you demystify [a taboo], it normalizes it, and we see that we are far more similar than we are different.”
Feminism by Sociopaths
In a television landscape full of feminists, UnREAL provides one of the darkest and most extreme versions of female empowerment: that of getting ahead by stepping on other women, as required by their job. And so it’s unsurprising -- and yet utterly compelling -- to watch Rachel get off (quite literally) on the ego trip of “making history” and “changing the world” by hiring Everlasting’s first black Suitor.
Led by two women, UnREAL certainly has no problem with female leadership; it’s even given Appleby her third and Shapiro her first TV-directing gigs in Season 2. But the show is also keenly interested in how the isolation and the sense of entitlement that comes with power sours Rachel and Quinn’s relationship -- and how precarious that power can be in the first place. “Making history” doesn’t immunize Rachel from interference from both Quinn and the network, as she’s a little late to learn. Watching Rachel “trying to rebel [against] and assert her independence” from her mentor, as Appleby puts it, is both an inspirational and a dreadful experience -- we anticipate and fear where her unstable, morally indifferent genius will take her. (That UnREAL makes the 5-foot-3 Appleby and the 5-foot-2 Zimmer, both unexpectedly giggly and girly, seem like larger-than-life figures is a testament to the performers. Talking about her directorial and fashion interests -- she instantly identified my sweater as a J.Crew piece when we sat down in Quinn’s comfy, modernist office in the densely packed set -- Appleby sounded like she wanted to take over the world. Known for her hard-edged roles in Entourage and House of Cards, Zimmer admitted she missed playing the “quirky, wacky, funny girls” that were her stock in trade at the sitcom-heavy start of her career.)
When Season 2 begins, Zimmer says, “Quinn is in the Chet role, and Rachel is in the Quinn role.” Professional ascension also means having to readjust one’s roles and identities, especially in relation to others, and that’s part of where the fascinating conflict lies for the show’s second year. Rachel and Quinn aren’t “on the same team right now, and it’s hard, because they care about each other so much." Zimmer continues, “Quinn was really hoping Rachel could do this; she really wanted Rachel to take over so she could relax. And when that doesn’t happen, it’s that disappointment of a parent. Rachel is disappointed with Quinn and Quinn is disappointed with Rachel, and it’s coming out in very, very dark ways because they don’t really know any different. They don’t know how else to express it.”
The women’s tussle for control over Everlasting’s future manifests, intriguingly, as an unspoken fight over the definition of “good television.” For Rachel, it’s “just doing something different,” according to Appleby. By giving activist Ruby a stage in front of 16 million viewers -- even if she’ll probably be slated for early elimination just like every other black woman on Everlasting (and The Bachelor) -- “Rachel feels like she’s working the system.”
Quinn, on the other hand, has never told herself that she’s doing something socially important. “Revealing people’s weaknesses” is her idea of good TV, says Zimmer. “When people are weak, they give over a part of themselves that normally you don’t get to see on television. [Quinn] likes to take people by surprise and just go for the jugular -- and have a camera there, of course.”
In addition to a new love interest for Quinn, “we’ll dive into Quinn’s upbringing, a little bit about her parents -- or lack thereof -- and how all of that [results in] one big complicated, vulnerable, insecure, confident mess,” says Zimmer. Rachel’s pathologically passive-aggressive mother also produced a power- and stability-seeking personality. “When you were raised so out-of-control and so abused and feeling like your life isn’t your own,” says Appleby of Rachel’s motivations, “now all she’s trying to do is acquire power so she can have control.”
The Inevitability of Male Backlash
Despite all the bad decisions Quinn and Rachel make, they don’t deserve the return of Chet, who reappears on the Everlasting set as an angry MRA tweet in human-garbage form after a six-month stay at a “paleolithic retreat center.” Female power may go awry, but the male backlash to feminism -- as we’re seeing on social media every day -- is vastly scarier and uglier.
But male rage is the discomfiting flip side of women’s advancement -- a reality we’re loath to acknowledge in triumphant narratives on film and television. Chet’s transformation -- with a nearly unrecognizable Bierko now 50 pounds thinner -- from a “pussified” weakling to a “real man” determined to reclaim his “kingdom” doesn’t just add another can of gas to the logistical dumpster fire that the new season of Everlasting begins as. It’s also an exploration of how easily set back the march forward can be -- and how it’s much easier for some men to blame all of womankind than to blame themselves. And, unfortunately, Chet’s far from the only one among the predominantly male crew who decides he has a major problem with Rachel’s promotion.
While Rachel and Quinn duke it out between themselves, Chet -- along with the newly conscientious Jay -- serve as the wild cards in the production. And if Quinn’s vision of Everlasting -- with its neat groupings of women into “wifeys, bitches, and sluts” -- is the stuff of ‘80s movies, Chet’s is even more horrifyingly retro. The flimsy gowns that the contestants used to greet the Suitor in are replaced by bikinis. “Oiled up, spray-tanned, and pubeless,” demands Quinn, never one to buck conventional beauty standards.
Male backlash has certainly never seemed more pertinent, taking form, as it does, from matters as grave as domestic violence and as seemingly trivial as feminist critiques of video games or an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. At the same time, women in America are more powerful than ever -- or may well be soon. Both Zimmer and Bierko alluded to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as an unmistakable feminist milestone. “We very well might have a female president, and that’s going to change the nature of the way people think about women,” said Bierko. “I’m proud to be a part of a show that’s throwing light on a segment of the population -- women older than 28 -- that nobody tells stories about.”
“For better or worse, male rage, male entitlement,” he continues, “is very powerful, and when you have a woman question it -- which is what this show is all about from an old-school male point of view -- Chet’s really been knocked back, and he’s coming back into the second season with a lot to settle. He wants his kingdom back, and he wants his queen [back] too.”
For the Chets of the world, Bierko has a few sage pieces of advice: “If you want something from somebody else, you have to learn to give something to somebody else, or you’ll be alone.” The key to love, then, is pretty simple, if frustratingly difficult to pull off. “To find love in this world, you have to work very hard, and you have to find somebody that’s worth working hard for. It’s not [just] somebody riding up in a coach and carriage.”