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Whether You Love or Hate Reality TV, Lifetime’s Savage ‘UnREAL’ Is Required Viewing

Whether You Love or Hate Reality TV, Lifetime's Savage 'UnREAL' Is Required Viewing

The upcoming drama “UnREAL” chronicles the making of a dating reality show called “Everlasting,” from the point of view of a producer (Shiri Appleby) whose soul is dying in the name of creating “great TV.” It’s a show all about the manipulation of truth, so I will be honest: At a certain point in my conversation with the cast and creators of “UnREAL,” we took a very short break so that I could eat a bite of a bacon chocolate chip cookie. That’s because we were in the back room of a popular and bacon-obsessed Austin restaurant, where the folks behind the upcoming Lifetime drama were celebrating a triumphant premiere as part of SXSW’s Episodics line-up.

READ MORE: SXSW: Film Festivals Need TV (And TV Needs Film Festivals)

Watching me eat that bacon chocolate chip cookie bite were showrunners Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon, as well as stars Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer and Freddie Stroma, who were all too happy to reveal why “UnREAL” will probably always be about dating, how Lifetime gave them the freedom to push beyond the network’s brand, and whether, after exposing the ugly truth of reality television, they can still watch it anymore. 

How Real or UnREAL is “UnREAL”?

Sorry, couldn’t resist. But it’s one of the show’s cornerstones: how what we see when we watch reality TV is an explicit distortion. 

I’d been prepared to ask Shapiro and Noxon how much they exaggerated the reality of reality TV production, until someone at the SXSW post-screening Q&A came up to the mike and admitted that she was a survivor of the reality TV experience, and that “UnREAL” had captured her experience as a producer perfectly. 

“That was amazing, wasn’t it?” Shapiro said.

Shapiro did say the actual stories of the show were not things that have happened in their experience. However, it was grounded in their knowledge of the realities of life on set: “Like being sleep deprived and eating fucking horrible food and not having seen your friends or family in three months, and sleeping with somebody you totally shouldn’t because what the fuck else are you going to do.”

The big shock factor of “UnREAL” comes from the fact that instead of just being told about the manipulation that goes into creating reality TV, viewers see it dramatized. “Those manipulation things are kind of common knowledge now, but I think to see them embodied and acted is really shocking — to actually imagine those scenarios,” Shapiro said. “I remember NPR did a thing on ‘The Swan’ like seven years ago that was a huge expose that went a little bit unnoticed. People talk about these things, but it’s just not really imagined or realized.”

Which is why “UnREAL” is not a parody, and actually tries to remain pretty truthful about what this sort of production is like. “We put an absolute ban on spoofing. We actually take that pretty seriously. We talk about the tone on this show being a little bit of a razor’s edge,” Shapiro said. “It’s pretty important that we stay human and connected to everyone. That sort of a takedown is not really what we’re about. We really, really care about both the contestants and the producers, and the whole world. There’s like a poignancy and an ache to the whole thing that really needs to feel grounded and human.”

For a show about television, Noxon pointed out that “UnREAL” is pretty cynical about the medium: “Maybe not since ‘Larry Sanders’ has a show has been as mean about TV. It really casts a lot of aspersions on a lot of the stuff that we do. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of TV that we all love, but I think that that’s something unique about it that a lot of people are going to respond to. This show is actually poking fun at itself, but more than fun it’s actually poking some anger.” 

The Princess Fantasy

Why might people ignore the manipulation of reality that happens? In Zimmer’s words, “Because they don’t want to believe it. They still want to believe the fantasy that it’s all real.” And that’s part of why of all the reality show genres out there, “UnREAL” is about a dating show: Dating shows embody a narrative that women, especially, tend to connect with.

“Thematically, I feel like Marti and I are pretty passionate about the princess fantasy and that kind of stuff, so the romance genre is still pretty rich for now. There’s a lot to it,” Shapiro said.

Noxon agreed, adding, “Overall I feel like so much of the work I’m doing right now is about sexual politics. ‘Everlasting’ is such a throwback to a different kind of sexual politics where the hand of the suitor is something you compete for. It’s not necessarily about love, it’s about stability.”

“And winning,” Shapiro chimed in.

“And winning,” Noxon agreed, laughing. “And winning. I think that that’s one of the things where we were like ‘That’s so true in so many areas of life right now.'”

What Might Come Next

It’s maybe bad luck to ask the creators of a show what they have planned for a second season before the first has ever premiered. But I was curious about “UnREAL” because given the show’s promise to track the first season of “Everlasting” over the course of its first season, some very different but very intriguing angles for Season 2 become obvious.

If there were another season, though, Shapiro said it would likely stay in the dating show realm. “Thematically, I feel like Marti and I are pretty passionate about the princess fantasy and that kind of stuff, so the romance genre is still pretty rich for now. There’s a lot to it.”

At this point, I mentioned the fact that most seasons of “The Bachelor” alternate with “The Bachelorette,” which could be interesting. “We also think it’s very interesting!” Shapiro laughed.

Why Someone On a Lifetime Series Says “Pussy!”

So, one of “UnREAL’s” big early shocks: Quinn (Zimmer), in one of her most raw moments, snaps the phrase “old shriveled pussy” at her underlings in the control room. “Pussy” is not, exactly, a word we’re used to hearing on a network initially branded by soft-focus women’s issues movies-of-the-week, but it was something Zimmer (familiar to “Entourage” fans as Hollywood power exec Dana Gordon) demanded.

“I really fought for that,” Zimmer said. “I emailed [Shapiro] and I said, “Sarah, that line. We have to fight to keep the scene because I will not be caught on television saying ‘hoo-ha.’ I cannot do it. If you’re going to make these characters as real as possible, we do not want to start editing them by one tiny word that they have to say.”

And it all speaks to the way Lifetime has given “UnREAL” a fair amount of leeway — or rope, if you will. “Until we hang ourselves,” Shaprio said to laughter. “And I think the thing that’s kind of like a trust exercise, is that everyone at this table took a leap of faith on being in a Lifetime show. I would say that we all just sort of saw them saying that they want to keep the tone.”

“They have a very good handle on their brand; either you fit into it or you don’t,” Noxon said. “The risk was that Lifetime was saying ‘Okay, we’re extending the brand to something else.'”

“They’ve supported us all the way,” Shapiro said. “But I think that Constance being on this show and saying ‘No, I don’t want to say ‘hoo-ha,’ I want to say ‘pussy,” it’s like–“

Everyone laughed.

“She always wants to say ‘pussy,'” Noxon joked.

“Pussy! How many times can I get it in?” Zimmer said. “But I’m saying that we all were fighting for our characters and what our characters needed to have to be whole.”

“And to keep it honest. We have so much going on at all times, and to have her just say, ‘Look, this line, I really don’t want to say hoo-ha’ — everyone’s keeping us honest and just saying we want to make the show we want to make,” Shapiro said.

Overcoming the Lifetime Brand

But the branding issue is a real one because this isn’t a show you’d traditionally expect to see on Lifetime. “We talk a lot about premium cable and what it means to be premium cable, and for us being on a network like Lifetime is a big step for them,” Shapiro said. 

Zimmer mentioned a friend of hers that she’d told to come see the SXSW screening and how he was blown away by it. “He walked up to me as serious as all could be, and said ‘Thank you.’ He’s a 60-year old male, and he said, ‘I would never have gone to Lifetime and watched this show willingly, but because you told me to come and I saw this,’ he said, ‘I’ve never seen television like this before.'”

Is there a strategy in place, to conquer the perception for people who weren’t at SXSW? (Beyond the pretty scandalous ad campaign, which the team at the table at that point would only hint would be “hard to miss.”) “I think that’s very much their turf to navigate,” Shapiro said. “I think with this kind of stuff, just in how we talk about it, just taking it really seriously. Being clear about the fact that it came totally from a place that’s probably pretty different than what you’re used to, but doing it in a way that’s respectful to them. They have been so incredibly supportive of this and really pushed us in a great direction, so I think they’re definitely just taking the lead on that.”

But one interesting challenge, put to them by Lifetime, was figuring out how to bring in a male audience. “We were like, ‘Okay…'” Shapiro said. “That seems pretty hard, to bring a male audience to Lifetime, because that brand is so specific. But the fact that there are men responding to it is just a testament to the hard work that all these guys have done.”

In fact, Zimmer brought up her friend again: “He said, ‘Men should watch this show.'”

“Why? Why did he say that?” Shapiro asked her.

“‘Because you’ve diving into the psychology of the female from a woman’s perspective and a man’s perspective,'” Zimmer reported him saying. “‘You’re not just doing logline, logline, logline. I think you’re diving into something that men should see.'”

What Lifetime Execs Wanted to Make Sure They Got Right

“UnREAL” digs deep into the process of television production, but Lifetime wasn’t too concerned about making sure that the show wasn’t too insider or alienating. Instead? “We get a lot of notes on the network executives,” Noxon said.

“Yeah, and the casting was really hard,” Shapiro added. “Casting them was crazy because it was just like, ‘I don’t think she’d wear that.'”

“They were like, ‘They just don’t feel very real. You know, we don’t really understand them enough,'” Noxon said. “And she had four lines.”

Meanwhile, the show found its balance between being insider and broad enough to be understood by a general audience, something aided by a greater understanding of how film and television production works. “We had the benefit of a lot of shorthand,” Shapiro said.

And We Might Get Actually Hooked on “Everlasting”

One of the fascinating things about “UnREAL” is that as much as you might say you hate reality TV, by the time the pilot’s over you have favorites within the cast of “Everlasting” — contestants you’re hoping will win the competition.

“I think we want people voting for the girls. I think we want people wondering who is going to win, and how much are we going to mess up, you know?” Zimmer said.

And Shapiro said that even at that moment, within the offices of Lifetime, people were debating who should win. “What’s been funny, as we’re turning in the episodes to the network, they get into fights about the characters. People have such strong reactions to them, and take sides and see themselves in them. We’ve created characters that spark people to freak out and it’s kind of fun.”

“When all is said and done, are you going to have enough footage to actually put together like an episode of ‘Everlasting’?” I asked.

“Yes, we probably will,” Shapiro said.

“That would be amazing,” Zimmer said. “That should be on the internet.”

Do They Still Like Reality TV?

How did they feel about unscripted shows, knowing what they know now after completing production of the show’s first season? Well, most of those at the table weren’t really fans. For Shapiro, “You can watch the manipulation. You can see the editing. You’re almost too aware of it to really enjoy it.”

Appleby did admit that she was a big fan of “Project Runway,” but “I don’t even care if they manipulate those people, quite honestly,” she said. “I just want to watch them sew and be creative. I mean that’s really what I like about ‘Project Runway,’ is just watching people be creative and being given opportunity and see what they do with it.”

Stroma, a British native, had a different perspective on reality TV given the genre’s popularity in the UK. He’d seen at least two seasons of “Big Brother,” a monster hit there, and thus also witnessed the way that show created its own celebrities.

“It’s funny, because as soon as they finish you’ll see that all the contestants have red carpet events… They all stay famous for like a little bit, and then they disappear,” he said. “Jade [Goody] — she had tragedy, a kind of life and death through it. She became famous from ‘Big Brother,’ came back and did some other things, then she had children, then she got cancer and went and did a reality show of that, until she finally passed away. A strange life and death through reality TV.”

Noxon had a take on what makes the difference: “Not to name a group of sisters with a possibly transgender father [this conversation happened in March] but I feel like it’s all those shows that purport to be like real life. The competition shows I think we can all agree; they might be semi-rigged, but they’re still about somebody with a skill. The shows that are about people who it feels like might get famous for 15 minutes just because they were on TV living their life, that’s a really different category for me. And I think it can really corrupt people.”

“I think it’s also just the level of narcissism that’s really just insane for our culture. All the self-publishing and social media and like selfies, just that whole thing of constantly feeling like you’re being filmed and that being how you exist or are realized,” Shapiro said. “I think it’s like that kind of stuff, where training a camera on real life is the only way your real life matters.”

“UnREAL” premieres on Lifetime June 1 at 10pm.

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