Can Lifetime's 'UnREAL' Overcome Its Behind-the-Scenes Chaos?

Can Lifetime's 'Unreal' Overcome Its Behind-the-Scenes Chaos - Tim Peacock illo -H 2016
Illustration by Tim Peacock

The "sophomore slump" is a familiar problem on TV's critical hits, often made worse when inexperienced creative teams lose control of their own shows. Now one of 2015's breakouts, Lifetime's UnREAL, is trying to right the ship for its third season after its second suffered from a critical backlash amid behind-the-scenes drama.

UnREAL unveiled its third showrunner in as many seasons on Wednesday. Stacy Rukeyser, a writer-producer with the Emmy-nominated Bachelor send-up since the beginning, is known for having played the role of peacemaker between feuding co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The fallout from the pair's conflict — which saw Noxon leave the drama early on in season two — is said to have affected the quality of Lifetime's scripted jewel. Critics said the second season was unwieldy and mishandled a Black Lives Matter storyline — and the show, though never a big ratings draw, dipped even further last season.

"They tried to make it work as best they could [in season one]. She wasn't always around, and there were critical moments when work needed to be done," one source close to production says of Noxon, an experienced TV writer-producer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men), who had to focus on her Bravo dramedy Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce. (The Universal Cable Productions-produced series always was in first position to UnREAL.) Insiders suggest a June profile on Shapiro in The New Yorker, which presented her as "the savagely clever feminist behind UnREAL," was the nail in the coffin for their already-rocky relationship. In it, Shapiro referred to herself as a "Magical Unicorn" who is the voice of the show, and was critical of Noxon for appearing for the press tour after being largely absent during the season.

After co-writing the first episode of the second season, Noxon negotiated her exit from UnREAL. While she continues to be credited as an executive producer, sources say her per-episode fee was cut from $50,000 to $25,000 to reflect her reduced role. In addition to filming the next three seasons of Girlfriends' all at once, Noxon has her hands full with other development via her rich Skydance TV deal. The writer-producer also has two movies, The Glass Castle and To the Bone — the latter of which she directed — in the pipeline, as well as HBO's Amy Adams series Sharp Objects.

Despite the network and studio's attempts to lure Noxon back for season three, insiders say she won’t return to UnREAL if Shapiro is involved. Lifetime, for its part, still insists Noxon remains a non-writing executive producer. Sources say the network best known for its low-budget biopics is afraid of losing the cachet that comes with having the power writer-producer's name attached. Lifetime declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Shapiro's exact role on UnREAL has been nebulous. Even with Noxon MIA for most of the show's sophomore run, it was seasoned TV producer Carol Barbee who served as showrunner, not Shapiro. (Barbee, who was brought in by Noxon after the two worked together on Girlfriends, has since left UnREAL to work on other projects.) Says one agent, alluding to the New Yorker piece, "Sarah thinks she's Lena Dunham. She's not." Multiple sources close to the show say Shapiro since has been barred from doing press.

As for Shapiro’s role this season, Rukeyser emphasizes in an interview that she and the former Bachelor producer are "in the trenches together." As Noxon's first hire on the series, Rukeyser says she aims to keep the drama strictly onscreen and turn UnREAL into a "smooth, well-running show." When asked about the off-camera tussles, Rukeyser downplays the conflict, telling THR: "It takes complicated women to make a show about complicated women." In terms of the onscreen narrative, she intends to rein in the show by returning to the more emotional, character-based storytelling that worked for the series in its first season.

As someone who watched his former ABC drama Lost win the best series Emmy for its freshman run only to get shut out in its second season, Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about sophomore slumps. But he also knows they can be reversed. "If you're a phenomenon out of the gate, it's difficult to ascend — let alone maintain," says the showrunner. He managed to buck the trend the second time around with his HBO drama The Leftovers, which critics argue got even better in season two. Adds Lindelof, "The nice thing about the sophomore slump is that it sets you up for the third-season rebound."

Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.