'UnREAL' Boss Marti Noxon on "Difficult" Feminism and the Show's Dark Turn: "There's Farther for [Rachel] to Fall"

“The topic, the subject matter, and the timeliness — everybody felt like, ‘Why hasn’t this show already happened?’ and I don’t think [anybody] has that insight into the world to really capture it the way that [co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro] has,” Noxon tells THR.
James Dittiger

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Monday's episode of UnREAL, "Mother."]

No one ever said Everlasting would be a fairy tale.

Monday night’s episode of the biting new Lifetime drama UnREAL saw the reality-TV-skewering show continue its trajectory into darker waters in an episode that included mental disorders, drug abuse, eating disorders and sexual assault.

On the drama’s show-within-a-show Everlasting, events took a turn for the tragic. Not only was Anna (Johanna Braddy) still reeling from the death of her father and struggling with her eating disorder, but Maya (Natasha Wilson) walked away drunk, battered and broken — sexually assaulted by an unapologetic Roger (Tom Brittney), the rakish British friend of Adam (Freddie Stroma).

Meanwhile, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) was off-set, having been kicked out by Quinn (Constance Zimmer) once she hit triple overtime and, strapped for cash, decided to reach out to her parents. However, her desperate request for help was not only denied, but also was accompanied by a breakdown-inducing psychoanalysis from her mother (Mimi Kuzyk).

“We do draw a pretty straight line between the things her mom says to her and then the ways that she’s able to manipulate the women on the show,” Marti Noxon, who co-created the show with former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Rachel has this deep, deep place of her conflict. Part of her wants to know that she’s a healthy, good person and part of her believes in her heart of hearts that she’s a bad person and why fight it?”

With the series already delving deep into serious themes, how much darker can it go? THR caught up with Noxon to discuss pitching the show, selling the “fantasy of love” and whether the show can be feminist.

Reality TV parodies have been done before, usually very comically. How did you approach UnREAL in a way that would differentiate it from the rest?

Yes, people have made fun of the genre, but our feeling was that there is real pathos and drama and a whole side of this world that has never really been explored in a more [grounded] way. I‘ve had people email me who are literally on reality shows, and they’re like, "Yeah, this is what it’s like. You’ve got it." Sarah and I always have said this isn’t a satire. It sounds pretentious, but it’s more [Robert] Altman — a world where there are a lot of characters, a lot of voices and sometimes you feel funny and dark. You’re getting this [voice] into a world that you’ve always wanted to see, but you’ve never been let backstage.

The show-within-a show, Everlasting, is very similar to The Bachelor. Was there ever any fear of going too close to the real thing? Have you heard any feedback from the producers of those shows?

The show’s look is obviously based off the most romantic symbolism and all the stuff you see in The Bachelor and even other [similar] shows. We worried about, certainly, offending real people, and we definitely did the best we could to make sure none of the characters are like any of the real people that Sarah came into contact. We doubted that anyone would come after us because they’d be saying that that’s what it’s actually like. They’d have to actually [cop to it]. We were very clear that this all was made up.

This episode dealt with mental disorders, eating disorders, drug abuse and sexual assault. Was there every any hesitancy in delving into these dark themes? Was there ever anything you or Lifetime felt had to be pulled back?

Honestly, not on our end. The question of the mental Munchausen’s by proxy, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen that before. It’s a more extreme example of a parent who, pathologizes [sic] their child constantly. In this case, we went to the darkest version of that. When [Nancy Debuc] came on as the [president and CEO] of A&E Networks, she said to us, "We want a dark premium cable type show. We want you to push this as far as you can and we’ll bring you back." There’s only one shot and one argument that we ever had around something that we ended up not doing, but in terms of story it wasn’t essential.

So Lifetime and A&E gave you the green light to go dark and this show seems like a bit of a departure from what the network usually does. Was that something you were very cognizant of in creating it and did you use any of those potential expectations as ideas to subvert?

We understood that there would be an expectation both in the tone and execution, and that was actually a plus for us because we knew there was going to be a real surprise for people when they realized we were taking a very different approach. When I first started working on Buffy before I saw what the show was, [I thought], 'Why would I want to watch [this show based on a failed movie]?' [Joss Whedon] said, "You know, you can never underestimate the power of low expectations." That was kind of brilliant.

We saw Rachel with her parents in this episode and notably with her psychotherapist mother. How has that experience and background shaped her views on working on the show and life in general? Will we continue to learn more about her background?

When we were talking about creating a real antihero in Rachel — and Quinn — it was really important we start early-ish in the season to understand that this person was raised in a home that was so highly manipulative and emotionally manipulative. By the time that scene with her mom is over, she’s wrecked, she’s destroyed and she tears the check up because she’s trying so hard not to believe that she’s incapable of functioning in the world. But, that’s where her magic powers come from.

The breakdown we saw in the pilot was shown as her rock bottom, but is it really? Or can she fall even further?

Absolutely, there’s farther for her to fall. In some ways, even though that was a breakdown, it was actually her being very authentic. It was her standing up for what she really believes and part of her that really wants to walk away and never look back.

Quinn, on the other hand, is very much OK with everything. What is it that fundamentally differs between the two that allows her to be this OK with what she’s doing?

Quinn, probably long ago, surrendered to the fact that world is a nasty place and she can’t change that so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. For Rachel, it’s still really a struggle for her soul and I don’t know if she could fully become Quinn. If she became Quinn, she’d probably go even darker. She’d become the kingpin.

In the pilot, Rachel was wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt. Do you consider Rachel a feminist character? What does your show have to say about feminism considering many might consider these types of reality shows to be anything but?

Absolutely. Something that Sarah and I set out to do is make a show that had strong opinions about these issues of justification and the way the women and men are portrayed on television that is certainly really harmful for people. My other show, [Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce] has also got a lot of feminist content. Sarah pitched the feminist T-shirt and the reason I loved it so much was because the world that we live in right now, even if you identify as feminist, can make you so crazy and you can want to live up to those ideals, but you come out day after day just being barraged with women in power and women who can’t keep their reproductive rights and women who are blazing new trails and porn that is more [prevalent] now than ever [before] and made by men. Our whole point of view going into the show was not to show an ideal feminist, at all, obviously, but to show that, it is so difficult to try to navigate these waters of sexuality and sexual politics especially when there’s this investment in creating these lies around how people fall in love and lies that even the best feminist women fall prey to themselves. I always joke that I’m a feminist with a boob job. Figure that one out, I’m trying to still.

Shows like The Bachelor have only had one or two successful couples…

Two out of 27 is what I heard.

What do you think it is about these shows that get people so invested knowing that they so rarely work out?

There is a real sense of loss and confusion around how men and women are supposed to behave with each other and the lost art of courtship — the fantasy that we want to believe in even though we know it’s not real. Happily ever after is, most of the time, 50/50 success. On TV, it’s even less. It’s also a world where men are men and women are women, even though it’s entirely sexist, and disempowering for almost everyone involved, at least there were rules. [Now,] as women and men get closer to some kind of equality, in relationships and in work, we’re a little bit more desperate in how we’re supposed to handle ourselves in love.

For those who aren’t watching yet, what’s your best pitch as to why people, either reality fans or good TV fans, should watch the show?

It is undeniable, once you start watching it’s very hard to stop. If you love that feeling of ‘I can't wait for the next episode,’ it’s very satisfying in that way. I saw somebody comment it’s like The Bachelor and Breaking Bad had a baby.... It’s very juicy and entertaining, but I also think that it’s about something. I’m very excited to see people debate whether Rachel and Quinn are awful people or not so awful and whether you can be a feminist who hurts other women. 

UnREAL airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.