New showrunner Stacy Rukeyser gets UnREAL back to basics for season three.
Bettina Strauss/A&E Netwroks
UnREAL, the show about a show behind a show, was a hit from the word action.
Created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon, and starring Shiri Appleby as show producer Rachel and Constance Zimmer as executive producer Quinn, the Lifetime series immediately bowled over critics and fans with its peek behind curtains of Everlasting, a reality dating show like The Bachelor.
The response surprised even the people behind UnREAL. “When we were making season one, I had no idea that we were doing anything unusual,” says season three showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, who’s been with the series from the start. “I was writing these characters who are complicated, screwed- up women that felt completely normal to me, because I’m a complicated, screwed-up woman.”
It wasn’t until she took a step back that she realized the public was right. Two female protagonists on television — let alone two of the complicated, screwed-up variety — were a rarity worth celebrating. Finally, women were allowed to break bad, too.
Thrilled with the results, Lifetime tried to capitalize on UnREAL’s momentum in season two, but the show became crammed with plot turns that were both underdeveloped and over the top. Ending the season with a double murder set up to look like a car accident went over like a train wreck.
“There were some really big swings taken in the story. That I do admire,” Rukeyser says diplomatically. “But the ramifications, the emotional impact of those story points, felt a little bit rushed to me.”
Taking the reins for season three, which premieres February 26, she had to address the previous season’s storyline. But the larger arc returns to the concept that powered the series in the first place: looking at the damaging effects of reality television on the contestants, as well as on the producers who manipulate them.
This season will star a female “suitress,” as Rukeyser terms the new central contestant. Serena is a smart, successful, feminist Silicon Valley executive who can’t figure out why she’s still single. “And this is what it’s come to — she’s decided that it’s a good idea to go on a reality show to try to find a husband.”
Rukeyser was 37 when she met her own husband, she says, “so I definitely had the experience that Serena has, which is that you’re going along and everything seems fine, your career is going well, and why are you not finding a guy?”
She also relates to a scene in which the near-useless Everlasting exec producer Chet (Craig Bierko) convinces the male network president that a feminist suitress is a great idea, because the exec won’t trust the idea coming from Rachel and Quinn. “That is maddening, and something I have experienced in my own life,” Rukeyser says.
While she and her writers were sketching out the season, everyone on the show expected Hillary Clinton would be president by the time it aired. “There were some people at the network who thought, Is this still an issue? Is this still relevant? Which is either naïve or incredibly hopeful,” Rukeyser says.
“But I looked at the vitriol that Hillary Clinton was receiving on the campaign trail and it became clear to me that in this country, to a great number of people, there is nothing more frightening than a strong, smart woman.”
Fortunately, Lifetime isn’t scared: the network has already ordered a fourth season.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018