'UnREAL' EPs Address Season 2 Criticism and Police Shooting Episode: "Maybe It Wasn’t Our Story to Tell"

UnREAL S02 Still 4 - Publicity - H 2016
Bettina Strauss/A+E Networks

UnREAL S02 Still 4 - Publicity - H 2016

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from UnREAL’s season two finale, “Friendly Fire.”]
UnREAL’s second season finished with a bang as Jeremy (Josh Kelly) had Coleman (Michael Rady) and Yael (Monica Barbaro) killed in a car crash to save Everlasting from cancelation — and him, Rachel (Shiri Appleby), Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Chet (Craig Bierko) from going to jail for Mary’s suicide in season one.
This shocking moment — paired with Darius (B.J. Britt) and Ruby (Denee Benton) running off together — ended UnREAL’s jam-packed sophomore season. In addition to criticism about the number of storylines and many character twists, the Lifetime drama's second season was criticized for an episode about a police shooting that some argued only served to further the story of the show's white female protagonist. The lukewarm reaction to season two, and the decision to wrap up several main storylines in the finale, elicits questions about just what season three will look like.
“It’s really important to stay grounded," co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There is a funny thing about the wildness of the show, which is really, really fun, but it reaffirmed for me that it’s super important to stay grounded in things that would really happen in that world. Having lived in that world, it is a rich, wild world that we don’t really need to add onto too much.”
Below, Shapiro and executive producer Stacy Rukeyser discuss what other changes they expect to make next season, their reactions to the critical response to season two and how characters’ relationships — both contestants and behind-the-scenes crew like Quinn and Rachel — will shift moving forward.
Season two tied up neatly with Darius and Ruby finding true love and Coleman and Yael getting possibly murdered so they don’t tell Everlasting’s secrets? Why did you decide to go that route and kill off Coleman and Yael?
Stacy Rukeyser: I think Darius finding true love is the most revolutionary thing that can happen on Everlasting. It’s certainly something we wanted for him. We always loved the character of Ruby and loved the transformation that was possible for both of them within this context. When we looked at the way last season ended, we certainly wanted to do something different, even just in the Everlasting side of it. In some ways, this is the most shocking thing that could happen on Everlasting. In terms of Coleman and Yael … we think of it is as a completely rogue move that Jeremy went out and did. When we were following that story through of what Coleman did to Rachel and what he became, we have to admit there was kind of a deliciousness to that.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: We’ve always felt that pure cynicism is boring and kind of bad writing. We always want to have some hope and humanity on the show. Darius was a person who came on because of a PR scandal, but he was a pretty pure, good person. So we wanted him to win and for a good person to win. There’s also an important moment when Ruby comes back and she asks Darius if he’s OK, and he says, “You’re the first person who has asked me that in a week.” The whole culture of narcissism is what reality TV is about, like selfie culture and self-documentation, is the idea that to find true love you actually have to care about another person. It’s not just about being hot; it’s also about having compassion. We wanted to protect that storyline kind of how we protected Faith last year. We always want to have our baby bird. We do find some of our characters are actually looking for love, and that does include people behind the scenes. 
Sarah, you spoke about keeping Jeremy in this season when you thought he was a one-season-only character. What did you learn from having to change the course for the network, finding a way to incorporate a character you weren’t as invested in and bringing him in in a big way, especially in the finale?
Shapiro: UnREAL is an interesting show because part of the cast refreshes every season. What we’ve found is that it’s really important to keep our main characters sort of core and focus on the work family. Incorporating Jeremy into that storyline landed in a way for us that now they’re bound together by blood. They are more attached to each other than they’ve ever been. It was a satisfying way to weave together the work family, even if it is a really broken family.
Rukeyser: Certain things were printed in certain profiles that I think are not necessarily reflecting the total truth of where we are. 
Shapiro: I agree with that.
Rukeyser: I wouldn’t really take that as the gospel of what actually occurred — I’ll just put it that way. We love writing for Jeremy and what I love about his storyline is that as wild and crazy as our show can get, we always approach our storytelling from being inside of our characters and what feels real and truthful for what they would do. Jeremy’s arc this season feels wonderfully so that way. I understand him, I understand what it’s like to have been embarrassed in the way he was by Rachel, not to mention heartbroken. He blew up his life, he called off his engagement, he committed again to Rachel and was humiliated and rejected by her … Frankly, I really get that in the scene where he quote-unquote hits her in episode five. They get into this tussle and one could argue that she came at him. He was so angry, and obviously it’s never OK to put your hands on a woman, but from an emotional truth of a character, I understand it. When Coleman finds him in that bar and he’s just looking awful and his life is clearly awful and then he comes back and hears these things about Rachel that make him understand her in a way that he never did before, it’s incredibly powerful. He is desperate to make things right and to find a way back into this work family and in particular with Rachel. He says he’s willing to do anything. And then he goes and does this crazy thing. 
We would like the audience to have a debate about the scene where Rachel and Jeremy are in the truck. Was she just talking to him about the truth and letting off steam and saying it’s over, or was she quote-unquote producing him? Does she want him to go and do something? Does she think he was a loose cannon that would go do something? I believe even if she was producing him, and whether or not that was conscious or unconscious, she never in a million years thought he would drive them off the road or whatever he did to make that car accident happen. Her shock at the end is real. Those are the lengths that this character, Jeremy, would do to try to make things right for Rachel. It’s crazy that he would try to do that, but I understand it from an emotional truth. That’s what’s really exciting about his storyline — there are crazy moves along the way, but I really, really get them.
Do you think his killing off Yael and Coleman redeems him from when he hit Rachel earlier this season? 
Rukeyser: I don’t think it goes all the way to redeem him, no … For him to redeem himself with Rachel, I absolutely think there would be more work that would need to get done, and getting sober is part of that. There is emotional relationship work. Who knows if he ever could. I don’t even know that he could. I don’t think this does it.
If Jeremy returns in season three, how do you think he’ll deal with that emotional past with Rachel and now saving the day in a twisted way? What does that move mean for his involvement in Everlasting?
Rukeyser: Those are all the questions that are very interesting for us. Certainly we have to deal with the practical fallout of what’s happened, but also the emotional fallout of that. What he’s done, whether or not he feels it’s what Rachel wanted him to do, Rachel’s horror at it, and yes, it’s complicated because it did save the day in a way. The complications of that emotionally and professionally are very rich, and that’s absolutely where we’re starting them next season.
How do you think the balance between the show-within-the-show and the behind-the-scenes drama changed between season one and season two, and how do you see that balance changing again in season three? Do you foresee tweaking that and making improvements of what you wish you did more or less of?
Rukeyser: We’re very proud of the season. It’s different in some ways from season one, and we as creative, professional people do a debrief at the end of each season and look at what we liked and didn’t like and what we can improve upon for season three. We’ve absolutely done that for this season. We’re still incredibly proud of the season and what we’ve done. There’s story on so many levels on this show. Yes, there’s who’s winning on Everlasting or what’s happening on Everlasting, but there’s also the behind the scenes on Everlasting for the contestants and the behind the scenes for our characters on UnREAL. It’s a tricky show to balance all of that story, but that’s what we’re endeavoring to do.
Shapiro: If there’s any calibrating to do, it’s to humanize the contestants on the show. That is the original intent of the show: to make those people people. It’s a balancing act always because there’s so much story to tell. What we’ve been really surprised and excited to find is that viewers also really like the show within the show. If I skew any way, it’s like, “Rachel, Quinn, Rachel, Quinn!” (Laughs.) We can’t ignore the fact that that’s also a fun story. The thing we’ll be focusing on moving into season three is making sure that Rachel and Quinn have a lot to do with those characters, and those characters are woven into their stories.
Quinn and Rachel’s relationship was even more of a rollercoaster this season with them fighting and then reuniting and never knowing what page they’re on. What story were you ultimately trying to tell with them in season two, and will that change in season three? Is there a next step for that dynamic? You’ve said they are the core romantic relationship of the show.
Shapiro: We just wanted to show that they really can’t live without each other and they’re each other’s family. It’s a great place to land at the end of season and now into season three — they’re indelibly bound now. They are always better together than they are apart. 
Rukeyser: Quinn, for as complicated as their relationship is, loves Rachel very much and is a better quote-unquote mother to her than her real one … The dynamics of that relationship were something that was very interesting to us. We think of them as the primary romantic relationship, so this year the primary love triangle was really between Quinn, Rachel and Coleman.
It could be a square because of the lingering Chet problems. Quinn threw away happiness with Booth. Now that she is single again, what does that mean for Chet and Quinn? What’s next now that they are forced together because of the Yael-Coleman death?
Shapiro: They’re each other’s family. At that age, the person she spent 10 years in a relationship with, she’s going to have more shorthand with as a human being than anyone she meets at this point in her life. What do you do with those people in your life? The weird people who have sort of become your partner, but you shouldn’t really be with them? Thematically, the season was about mentorship. When you outgrow your mentor, there’s no plan for that, but what happens? And also about these broken work families that you find as an adult; Chet and Quinn are mommy and daddy of that family. 
Rukeyser: Who Chet is as a person is changing too. He started this journey by going on his trip to Patagonia and killing deer and losing all that weight and doesn’t do drugs anymore, and sort of came back and had an “Everblasting” idea for the show that didn’t really get listened to. I think he’s still figuring it out too. He came to learn, over the course of the season, his regrets in terms of how he treated Quinn. He’s in a transformation too, and we’ll have to see where he winds up with this act that Jeremy has done. What is his viewpoint and how does he handle it? What are his ideas about how to move forward?
Shapiro: The idea for season three is that they’re all as low as they have ever been and this is as bad as it can get. Everybody is going to be looking for redemption. Watching Chet trying to truly redeem himself to become the man he’s supposed to be is something we’re interested in doing.
is about women who are not necessarily likable, doing a job that is despicable, and we are not going to be afraid of that," Noxon told THR."]
Chet was kind of separated from the rest of the production team in season two. In season three, will your plans for Chet be to bring him back into the fold?
Rukeyser: I think we would like that. It’s a very practical challenge in terms of storytelling because there is so much story. The more you can get our guys involved in Everlasting or in the production of the show, the easier it is to tell story. From an emotional standpoint, as sort of the Papa Bear when there’s been a big crisis, he has every reason in the world to make sure he’s more present and more involved. 
The critical response to season two overall was more divisive than season one. Why do you think that was? What do you think worked and didn’t work?
Rukeyser: We try not to pay too much attention to that kind of stuff. We try to really stay focused on the stories that we need to tell to stay within our characters and write within that place. I think the critical response to season one was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. So if I couldn’t believe all of the positive stuff, I try not to pay attention to some of the negative stuff, as well. Everybody has their experience viewing the show and we’ve done our own debrief, but what I’m really proud of as a show is we take really big swings. You’re never bored, that’s for sure. I’m really proud of that. Look, the shooting was something we could have said, “Oh, my gosh, we’re not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole” and then even go backwards from there and say, “Oh, my gosh, a black suitor. We’re not gonna touch that.” And, “We’re not going to have Jeremy hit Rachel, that’s just full of danger zone signs when you go into it.” What’s exciting is that we did go into all of those things and we have a studio and network that are supportive of us going into those zones. Not everyone is going to be happy with the way that we did it, but I’m still really proud for us taking those swings and looking at what’s interesting and relevant to us and trying to tell those stories through the prism of these characters. It’s a tricky show because the big twists and “oh, my God” moments we really try to approach from a character standpoint, and not have them just be for the sake of shock value; they have emotional truth. There are also very dark, emotional character moments and stories that we’re trying to examine and have, as well, and larger thematic things about relationships that we’re looking at. So it’s a lot to juggle, and I think we’re doing our best and we’re glad people are talking about the show.
You had a lot of story to juggle in just 10 episodes. Is there anything that you wish you could have devoted more time to or things that you would have cut? How concerned are you about burning through stories and finding new twists and changes for characters while staying true to the core of UnREAL?
Shapiro: It’s a balancing act of taking the time to slow down and tell those stories in a way that lands and also keeping a really fun pace for the show. Our boards in the writers’ room are wild. We just have so much going on at all times. Like Stacy said, the secret to the show is staying inside the characters and making sure those really big character moments are landing how they need to land and let all of the other stuff be like confetti on top of it. Going into season three, that’s what we’re going to stick with: telling those core character stories and letting the show still be fun and surprising, but making sure first and foremost the character moments land. 
Rukeyser: We’re not concerned about burning through stories. What we are concerned about is having too much story so that we don’t get to really sit with the resonance of some of that story … It was exciting in season one that Mary did jump off the roof in episode six — it wasn’t the season ender. Frankly, I think the audiences expect it these days. They certainly expect it from our show, but in general audiences are more impatient. That said, we’re not worried about it in terms of not having anything to say or story to tell, but we want to make sure we have time to sit with some of the resonance of some of those things. That’s exciting going into season three. There are certainly things that happened along the way that I don’t think have been fully explored or the ramifications or effects of those have been fully explored. What we’re talking about in season three is making sure those things are alive and present and dealt with, at least from an emotional standpoint and maybe from a plot or story standpoint as well. 
Shapiro: One of the things we talked about were that some of our favorite moments in season one were of Rachel or Quinn alone. Those are quieter moments that we want to make sure we have time for in season three too, which is a more Don Draper-y storytelling — sort of watching people have internal lives as they do these jobs. In a big, wild show, it’s an interesting balance to carve out those spaces for quieter internal scenes.
Stacy, you mentioned the police violence episode specifically. Do you have a response to the critical response to the police violence episode in particular? Is there anything you would do differently if you could go back and do that story again?
Shapiro: That was something we felt very strongly about doing from the beginning. I think the timing of what was happening in the world when the show aired made it even more combustible and controversial than we had intended. Specifically, there’s stuff that happens when you’re making TV, like there were more scenes in the script at the end of the show with Romeo and Darius, but they got cut for production. That was one of those things that for me, I would go back and fight a lot harder to have those included in the show, but television is a fast, furious medium where we’re all working hard to get the show done and it just happens. We very much stand behind the integrity of the basic storytelling, and I think the fact that we wanted to shine a light on that issue still feels very important to me. 
Rukeyser: We always knew we were telling it through the prism of these two white, female producers, in particular Rachel … It wasn’t just a police shooting story — it was always a police shooting story that was created from this monster of a machine. We always knew it was going to be that. Whether that’s an OK story to tell or not, that’s certainly up for discussion. There were scenes in the scripts for both episode seven, which was the shooting, and the following episode eight, which I co-wrote with Alex Metcalf, that originally had scenes with Romeo and Darius. If we could go back, I would have fought harder and cut something else, cut money from someplace else, in order to do them. It was always going to be this thing that Rachel made happen and a huge f—up and mistake on her part and the ramifications of that. Again, if that’s not an OK story to tell, that’s definitely a valid viewpoint. I still personally believe that I’d rather have more discussion of these issues than less. The more we talk about these things, the better.
Shapiro: Sometimes we’re almost a little too meta for our own good. We’re literally telling the story of “it’s not your story to tell” — Jay says the words, “It’s not your story to tell, Rachel” — and then people say that to us. The interesting thing about UnREAL is that it’s just a crazy combination of things. There’s really pulpy, fun entertainment that is sparkly and pretty and wild and off-the-rails, and then there’s 17-layered meta commentary on feminism and white privilege. I’m still proud of us for swinging for the fences and we legitimately feel like, yes, all of those comments are valid. Maybe it wasn’t our story to tell; it definitely wasn’t Rachel’s story to tell. It’s taking on big stuff and trying to do a lot in an hour of very entertaining television. 
What was the most important thing you learned doing season two, and what do you see as your biggest challenge going into season three?
Shapiro: The biggest thing I learned during season two is to slow down and take time for those character moments. Going into season three, our biggest challenge, which is really fun, is digging ourselves out of the hole. Our characters are at the bottom of the well right now, and we have to build them a ladder out. I’m excited about that. 
Rukeyser: To be totally honest with you, I didn’t love that each of our contestants, when they had their big story, is the episode that they were voted off. That was just a structural error, to be quite frank. I’m really proud of the stories that we did tell, but I would have liked to have sat with them for more of the season. I’m certainly going to make sure that is not the case in season three. I really agree with Sarah — when you pull up on those four characters on those chaise lounges at the end of the season ... Wow, we have a lot on their plate as we head into season three. How do we stay truthful to that and also give a season of Everlasting? It’s kind of crazy!
Shapiro: I also learned in that calibration of our world that it’s really important to stay grounded. There is a funny thing about the wildness of the show, which is really, really fun, but it reaffirmed for me that it’s super important to stay grounded in things that would really happen in that world. Having lived in that world, it is a rich, wild world that we don’t really need to add onto too much. Stacy and I both feel strongly about making sure the contestants are fully rounded human characters in season three, because we thought that was a great place to play in season one, as well.
UnREAL season three will premiere in 2017.