After UnReal’s critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated debut in 2015, the Lifetime drama—about two women who produce a Bachelor-like reality show called Everlasting—weathered a backlash during its bumpy sophomore season. The show lost ratings and alienated critics with polarizing storylines including a Black Lives Matter-inspired police shooting and an assault on lead character Rachel by her drunk ex-boyfriend.
Now co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and new showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, are hoping to get the series back on track with Season 3, which premieres on Monday. In 2005, Shapiro fled her job as a field producer on The Bachelor and started working at Wieden + Kennedy as a content producer. The agency later helped her make the independent short film (and UnReal’s inspiration) Sequin Raze and then turn it into a TV series.
Shapiro, joined by Rukeyser, talked about what she learned from Season 2, working with brands again and what she misses most, and least, from her Wieden days.
Adweek: What’s your take on what went wrong in Season 2, and what did you learn from that experience?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: The show takes big swings, period, and I don’t think we’re ever going to shy away from that. We definitely heard the feedback and the criticism: We heard it all, we read it all and we talked about it all. But at the end of the day, we’re still making the Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) show, and we’re eyes on the prize and we keep going forward. There’s some stuff we wish we had followed up on more, like emotional through lines that hadn’t been carried through, that we were interested in paying off in Season 3. And recalibrating the show back to its basic principle: It’s about the battle for Rachel’s soul and this relationship between Quinn and Rachel.
In the new season, Quinn and Rachel are fighting to save Everlasting, which seems to parallel what you’re going through as well.
Shapiro: Yeah, it’s kind of meta.
You had a year-and-a-half hiatus in between seasons. Do you feel like the longer break was good or bad for the show?
Rukeyser: It’s been hard for us, because we’ve had shows that we’re really excited about that we want to share with people, that we haven’t gotten to share it. It was very encourage that they ordered a fourth season [last summer] before they even saw how Season 3 did with the critics or in the ratings. That was such a vote of confidence, that it made us feel even better about this season.
Sarah, now that you’re three seasons into the show, what has your advertising background helped the most with?
Shapiro: Succinct storytelling is always useful. Learning how to tell a story in 30 seconds is a very powerful skill to have. Dedication to excellence, no matter what, was also something I took away from Wieden + Kennedy. We always go for the very best, all the time, and that’s what we strive to do at UnReal.
It’s been four years since you left Wieden. What do you miss most—and least?
Shapiro: It was such an incredible, creative incubator, and such a collaborative place to be. I miss Portland so much, and I miss the hell out of my friends there. I don’t miss clients. [laughs] I really, really enjoy being able to make something that is our voice, and that is just about the creative and not about a product. It’s incredibly liberating.
You’ve done product integrations on UnReal, so what has it been like to work with brands again?
Shapiro: On an episode I directed [in Season 2], we had a Samsung placement, so we were working with [W+K client] Samsung again. We’ve very grateful to have those partners—that’s not even lip service—so it’s not that big of a deal. The funny part is seeing other TV writers getting really pissed off about it—“Do we really have to show this product?”—where it’s another day at the office for me. I’m like, “This is nothing compared to what I used to have to do!”
Rukeyser: It depends how egregious it is. Not on this show, but I’ve had the write the scene where it’s like, we’re going to go home, but first let me pay for the check with my Mastercard debit card!
Will you be incorporating a storyline based on last summer’s Bachelor in Paradise scandal?
Rukeyser: That happened just before we were starting to talk about Season 4, so it may or may not infuse the storyline in Season 4. But again, we start with Quinn and Rachel, and where are their heads and their hearts at? Because if you’re trying to catch a story that’s in the news, we have no idea when these things are going to air, so who knows? We’re just trying to write for what is interesting to us, and what feels important to us, and for these characters too.
Could we see a version of something like Bachelor Winter Games in a future season of UnReal?
Shapiro: Every season when we’re breaking [the storylines], we come up with a reality show based on what we need to have happen for Rachel and Quinn. So the reason why there’s a suitress [in Season 3] is because they need to have an avatar to project all their shit onto. We choose the show within the show based on what we need for those characters, so Winter Games … maybe!