'UnREAL' Co-Creator on Season 2's "Raw" Race Conversations and "War for the Kingdom" Ahead

Season two of the Lifetime drama will introduce an African-American bachelor on the show-within-the-show, 'Everlasting.'
Bettina Strauss/A+E Networks

What a difference a year makes. In June 2015, Lifetime debuted a daring new drama unlike anything else on its air called UnREAL. Co-created by Buffy vet Marti Noxon and newcomer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the show took a closer, and devastating, look at reality dating shows like The Bachelor (which the latter so happened to have worked on.)

"It was like that thing of walking into the unknown," Shapiro tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Now, thanks to strong buzz, a slew of awards (a Peabody, and Critics' Choice for star Constance Zimmer) and an aggressive Emmys push, the word is officially out about UnREAL. With a season three renewal already in the bag, the hourlong series now returns for its second season on Monday with a new Everlasting bachelor (B.J. Britt), new females fighting for his heart and new behind-the-scenes drama that makes the TV show-within-the-show look tame by comparison.

Ahead of season two, THR spoke with Shapiro about the "terrifying" writers room conversations for season two, the onscreen power struggle ahead and her endgame for the series.

Last year, you were a new show. Now that people have seen the first season, how much does the critical reaction to last season's arcs and stories affect the writing process for season two?

I feel really strongly about sophomore seasons not reacting to criticism because once you start panning to the cheap seats, you lose the vision and the voice of the show. I feel like it's really, really important to stay inside the characters and do what we did the first season, which is follow the world through Rachel and Quinn's eyes and break the rest of the story around them.

How was the writing process for season two?

For me, the storytelling part of it has always been the easiest part because it's such a dynamic world. We're such in love with our characters and we have such incredible actors that like honestly sitting down to write it is just like, "Whoosh!" I feel super-confident about where we're going and I've always known what season two would be.

Since you already had season two in mind, how far along into the show do you have it mapped out at this point?

I sort of know what the endpoint is and I always have. But there's so many questions to answer between now and then, so it's not like I know really what the middle is, but I think what's nice about it is the arc of these characters is a pretty natural and organic arc of a life. It's like a person in their mid- to late 20s who has been a workaholic and freaking out and realizing that their life has been passing them by and they're in a job they hate, which is a pretty organic march of time, so those are posts we all recognize. And Quinn [Zimmer] is somebody who's at the top of her career, the apex of her career and the questions for her are: What else is there?

What can you say is coming up for Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn in season two? How does their perspective change this season?

There was a betrayal at the end of season one, but where we find them at that last scene in season one where they're lying on the lawn chairs is that, while Rachel's been betrayed, she's not going anywhere. A really primary character question for Rachel is, if she wasn't here, where would she be? And a really important answer to that question is, she has no f—ing idea. She has this vague idea about writing a novel, but what is it all even about? She wants to make documentaries, but what kind of documentaries? What is she talking about? And that's really important because Quinn is her mean mommy; it's the mommy she doesn't have but it's the person who, for better or worse, will make decisions for her and will tell her where to be and when to show up and what's good and what's bad. So we’re back in with Quinn and Rachel; they're not at each other's throats, they're together, they're unified. Chet has freaked out and left and gone on a Paleolithic man retreat, so he's gotten really into the men's rights movement and he's out hunting buffalo and he's lost 50 pounds. So with that power vacuum, Quinn has moved into the Chet role and Rachel has moved into the Quinn role and that is going to be really complicated.

How does that affect them? With more power comes more pressure and more stress.

Stress is interesting with people with mental health issues, so yes.

What other changes do you foresee in season two?

Because Chet has removed himself from power in the six months that we've been away, there's just a lot of vying for power on the show. Between Quinn, Rachel and Chet, there's so much movement in terms of who's the showrunner, who's in charge. Seeing those three people at war for the kingdom is really the biggest story.

With season two, you're doing a new season of the show-within-the-show, so you had to say goodbye to a lot of the recurring actors from season one. How concerned were you about that?

What was so funny when I pitched the show to [then-Lifetime executive] Nina Lederman, I remember her eyes just lighting up; they got all wide. She was like, 'Oh my God, the cast refreshes every season.' As I was pitching it, she as a network executive was like, "This is incredible." I was like, "I'm so glad you like it. Isn't it great?" It was a selling point of the show, and then at the end of season one, I was like, "Oh, shit! The cast refreshes every season. It's a lot of work." But then when we sat down to do it, it was just effortless. It's so fun to come up with those people, and what was really fun about the arcs for Mary, Faith and all the contestants… it's so fun to have a contained arc. It was daunting for a minute and then it was really fun.

The bachelor on Everlasting is African-American and they obviously haven't done that on the real Bachelor. Why did you think that was important to do? And why now?

The first season was about the princess fantasy and the idea that someone would come rescue you and how that hurts and destroys both sides of the gender spectrum. Marti and I both felt like after we were exploring feminism and the princess fantasy, we were really interested in exploring masculinity. And then also race was something we had touched on so briefly but that is really vitally important to all of us in terms of what's going on in the world right now, so it felt like masculinity and race were two incredible things to move toward. I think it's just about our passions and what we care about in the world and what we think is important to talk about. The fact that driving while black is dangerous now, it can't be ignored, and we feel like it's one of the most pressing things going on.

How much do you see that being addressed in the show and in the show-within-the-show?

Very much so. We wouldn't do it unless we were going to go pretty deep. It's super-terrifying material to get into because it's very complicated and raw and scary to talk about. We've had some really, really raw conversations in the writers room about it, and we're white; we have people of color on our writing staff, which is super-important to us, and they've taken a very primary role in talking about it. But I think it was like, "Let's have a totally terrifying conversation that's going to get super-weird and then we're all going to have to go for a walk."

What other issues were important for you to address in a bigger way in season two?

The other thing is workaholism with women and also the struggle to have it all with women. The pressure to have a career and a family and fall in love and watching these very strong feminist women navigate that, with Rachel and Quinn. Quinn, who's at a very different age than Rachel is, sort of has a moment that wakes her up and makes her look around and realize, what does she really have? And then her communicating that to Rachel and the idea that you're supposed to want a family, but do they really want a family? It's all the biological clock stuff. It's like the pure and essential nature of women and men because Chet's on this crazy men's rights thing, Quinn is at this age where she starts to freak out, Rachel is at an age where Quinn wants to warn her. It's all about gender and race.

The show pushed a lot of boundaries in season one. What boundaries you want to push in season two?

I talked a lot about what it means to be edgy, and for me to be edgy on UnREAL, it's really just about telling the truth: How much can we say something that people don't want to say? It's not about sex or drugs or rock 'n' roll or swearing because we can't do that. We're on a network where there are certain limitations, and I actually have found that the limitations have forced us to be really creative in a great way.

There's an example in episode five, which was the episode where Faith went home. When I originally wrote that episode, it opened with Rachel getting f—ed by a FedEx guy. She just grabbed the FedEx guy and said, 'F— me," and he had her bent over a barrel in the grip truck. It was bookended with her f—ing the same guy and getting herself off and then telling him to leave before he had finished and him saying, "I feel like I got raped." The network got that script and said, "Feels a little far. Feels like we haven't really established her as a sex addict." And I said, "Well, I don't know if she is a sex addict. She just wanted to get f—ed." So we had this funny conversation about it, and I took the note and I went away, and what I came back with I actually think is so much better, which is her jerking off and not being able to get off to porn. And then at the end, bookending it with the only thing that can get her off is the princess fantasy and the idea that somebody wanted to marry her. So I really loved where we landed. Those limitations force us to be, rather than crass or over-the-top, to have to just be really creative.

UnREAL's new season premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.

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