In the Lifetime series UNREAL, the fictional reality created for the show “Everlasting” does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Suitors or suitresses all line up for a chance to spin the Roulette Wheel on love. But what UNREAL does best is peel back, layer by layer, the carefully crafted illusion of attainable love in a manufactured setting that is intended to merely corral the unsuspecting into playing easily manipulable roles in a reality television show. The joke is literally an everyone — both those on-camera and those behind the camera. UNREAL is brilliant in that regard. It knows how to perfectly skewer each person for their personal foibles and flaws. In Season 3, it amped up the stakes with a gender reveal — it recruited a suitress and provided her with a juicy array of men all vying for her attention and courtship. Even with willing participants who think that they know what they are signing up for, the show is deliberately shaped to expose and exploit those foolish enough to believe they can play the game and win. Similar to the Season 1 result, Season 3 ends with no match found. Whether because the suitress’ heart was never really in it or due to the constant barrage of mixed truths fed to her through people who only wanted a quick sound bite or a scandalous scene to slice-and-dice for viewer entertainment, Season 3 was a strike out on love. To get a bit more insight as to the ramifications of the events of this season of UNREAL, in an exclusive interview, we spoke with executive producer Stacy Rukeyser.
We’re here to talk a little bit about UnREAL, and this crazy season, of course. I think what I’ve gleaned out of this season is the “issue of consent,” and it seems to be a popular theme in what we’re dealing with in real world these days, as well as on this show. Was that something you wanted to hold up a mirror for?
STACY: How so do you see that? Like in terms of Rachel’s storyline?
I think it pertains to the contestants’ storylines as well. We’re seeing that a lot of their privacy’s being broken by the cameras being put in places or times when they’re not expecting it. I think there’s issues of consent for the contestants and for the suitress and for Rachel. They have not consented to a lot of things. Rachel’s privacy was also breached by Dr. Simon (Brandon Jay McLaren). We’re not just talking about sexual consent. We’re talking about consent as to disclosures from your personal life, your personal information, and things like that.
STACY: That’s such an interesting read. That was not intentional. You have to understand, of course, that this season of the show was written and edited and completely done by August of last year. So we finished this season before there was a #MeToo or Time’s Up, or any of those issues were really coming to the forefront. Certainly, that’s an issue that we’ve been aware of. It’s just not exactly how we thought of it. Yes, with Dr. Simon, he absolutely crosses a line with Rachel, and it’s coming from a very personal place for him, particularly because of what happened with his last patient. But it’s absolutely unethical and unprofessional what he does. But that wasn’t so much what we were going at with the suitress — with Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald). We were much more interested in this idea of the feminist suitress, and what are the challenges for a woman like that in finding love, and who is the right partner. And certainly, by the end of the season, the sort of tyranny of choice that we have today because of dating apps, and you can swipe, swipe, swipe to your heart’s content. And how can you discern the difference between when are you settling for someone who really isn’t right for you, or you shouldn’t settle for, and when are you just making the compromises that are part of any real relationship?
Obviously, there was a huge glaring hole into the logic of looking on a TV show for your potential life mate. Serena might’ve thought she had exhausted all of her other options, but the fact that she chose something that was so inherently flawed and designed not to find your perfect mate, seems like an unwise decision on her part.
STACY: Well, that’s certainly not how she goes into it. There is a logic to it when she goes into it, and I think that’s how a lot of people. I think when people go on a show like this, they’re looking for fame, for sure, but particularly towards the beginning of that show, they were honestly looking for love. And I do think that, for those people, particularly who maybe don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, it really does open up your options quite a bit. So the logic that Serena was using was really about, as she says, increasing her deal flow. And she’s right, to the extent that by the time she finishes this show, every man in America does know who she is. And so that might help bring in some more contenders.
So she wasn’t really hoping that any of the remaining contestants will be a match, she just kinda went through the season to see what other options become available?
STACY: I don’t think so. I think she was really seriously choosing between the final two in the final episode. So much a part of the story was: Who is the right partner for this feminist suitress, in particular? Should a woman like Serena be with someone like Jasper, who is more of an “alpha” male, and together they’re a power couple, and they have their work and they travel all over the world together, and that sort of thing. Or is it better for someone like her to be with more of a “beta” guy like Owen, who maybe doesn’t have as big of a career, but he is available to stay home with the kids. And certainly that’s a scenario that many many women are going for these days now that women are very frequently the primary breadwinner in families. So I think what we were trying to look at is just really asking a lot of questions, like who is the right choice, or is neither one the right choice? Would both of them be settling, again? And she makes her decision in the end, but is it the right one?
At this point, all the potential candidates seem like they have a little bit of a flaw themselves. Did Owen or Jasper really deserve her?
STACY: That’s certainly for the audience to decide. I think that we are all flawed human beings. That’s certainly one of the themes of the series as a whole, is we are all damaged goods, and that is part and parcel of being a human being. Whether or not what they’ve done, or how they’ve tried to make up for it, whether it’s enough or not, I think is up to the audience, and that’s something we certainly hope that different people will be rooting for different guys.
Outside of Serena, we have been watching Quinn (Constance Zimmer) go on a bit of a journey of her own this season where it looks like she could be queen of her own empire, finally. And yet, it seems like she might be taking this as a solitary journey ’cause she herself has kinda put up some walls to Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and to Chet (Craig Bierko) this season. Is she willing to embark on this new venture, being queen of an empire on her own? Is she capable of that without them?
STACY: I think that that’s part of what we’re exploring. It was deeply, deeply important to her to get her empire back, to get her career going again from the sort of hit that it took at the start of Season 3. I don’t know that we’ve intended for her to be putting up walls to Rachel. I do believe she’s honestly been trying to help Rachel through the sort of journey of self discovery that Rachel has been on, and also dealing with her father, this season. She’s definitely putting up walls to Chet, but Chet has screwed up big time in choosing Crystal, and saying that it’s easier. And when he was open and vulnerable with Crystal in a way that he wasn’t able to be with Quinn, and he said as much, this is devastating. And so that’s a big hole to climb out of if he wants to get back with Chet. I mean, sorry, get back with Quinn. But I think that that’s absolutely thematically what we’ve been exploring is: Is it enough for Quinn to have her career back, to have her empire, to have all of this money, and yet be alone? Or does she need some sort of human contact even beyond her relationship with Rachel? Does she need a romantic partner of her own?
Quinn did have a little bit of a romance this seasons with August (Adam Demos), but I’m not sure if they actually really fully addressed the repercussions of having her sleep with one of the people who is appearing on the show as a potential suitor for the suitress. Is that gonna be explored further, or is that just something that is dropped for now?
STACY: August comes back in Season 4. Season 4 is Everlasting All-Stars, and he is one of the all-stars who comes back. So that’s definitely a part of his backstory, and it will continue to be so. So you can tune in and see how that continues to play itself out. I will say that I don’t necessarily think that Quinn and August had a romance. I think that Quinn used him to self-medicate at a time when she was feeling really, really bad about herself. That’s the same episode that I was talking about, when Chet reveals that he was able to be open and honest with Crystal in a way that he wasn’t with Quinn. And I believe that she had sex with August to sort of say, “Screw that. I am lovable,” and make herself feel better, really. And I think it did just that. Now, yes, it’s incredibly dangerous and inappropriate and, as Rachel says, even more so for Quinn because she’s the executive producer. Even though Rachel’s breaking those rules every season, practically, in terms of getting together with the contestants. But, yeah, there are definitely repercussions for that.
August had a interesting storyline. Not only did he have the issues from sleeping with Quinn, but he actually had his hair cut, and that was an “issue of consent,” as well. Somebody assaulted him, and yet the show really didn’t do much other than exploit it.
STACY: Well, that’s part of the sort of the show as well — that this is what happens on these reality shows. And so it’s pulling back the curtain on that — that everything is story, everything is drama, and it’s manipulated to be so. And there really isn’t a concern for the people who are on these shows. There’s just a concern for the good story, which will get you good ratings. And there’s not even really very much of a concern for the truth. In Season 1, one of the big themes was that they would say, “Oh, she knew what she was getting into by coming on the show.” But we still feel like it’s very hard to know because still people go on these shows and they think, “I’ll be able to control this. I can game the system. I see how it all works. I know how to make this work for me.” And I think it’s very, very hard to actually make that happen because there’s an entire system, an entire group of people, a whole crew that is there to do what they will with you. So I think there’s an allure for fame, and those things, to go on these shows, and most of the time people end up going through a sausage factory that’s really destructive.
Don’t you think there would have been a larger outcry if a woman’s hair had been cut off while she was sleeping, versus a man’s hair being cut off?
STACY: Probably, yes. I guess guys aren’t supposed to complain about things like that.
I just found it interesting that all these people — they kinda sign away their lives for these durations when they appear on these shows — but I don’t think that they give up everything just to be on these shows. You don’t want people abusing you by cutting off your hair, or forcing you to have sex, or portraying you in ways you don’t wanna be portrayed. Like it kinda looked like they backed one of the other contestants into a corner when they try to made him look like he was supposed to be bisexual, and he wasn’t. People are being asked to give up a lot of who they are personally, and it might be like a violation of consent on an emotional level, in certain ways. One of the things that struck me is this “issue of consent” and what is not being consented to and how it creates emotional triggers.
STACY: That’s interesting. Look, the tagline is “Bad people make good TV.” So this has been, definitely, part of what we believe in pulling back the curtain on reality television. We hear from a lot of people who work in reality television that it’s so real that it’s scary, our show. So I don’t know if we take it further than reality, or if this is exactly what they do on those shows. I never worked in reality, so I don’t know. But it’s certainly the reality in our world, is that these are what our characters do on Everlasting. And that’s part of the reason that Rachel is in the situation she’s in, which is that she hates herself for working there. She hates what she’s doing, she hates the fact that she’s really good at it, she hates the fact that she’s manipulating these men and women. It’s why it’s been the central conflict of the show from the pilot really, is that she does these things, she’s incredibly good at it, she gets off on it, and she hates herself for it.
Rachel’s obviously been doing a lot of self-analysis, which is good. It’s healthy. And she’s now trying to do it with, of course, Dr. Simon’s help. Is she gonna really start to address the fact that she considers working on the show like a drug, and that she might have a drug addiction problem because she can’t quit the show?
STACY: Yeah. That’s a theme that goes all the way through both the third season, and it comes up again in the fourth season because, of course, if there is a fourth season, you know that that means that Rachel’s coming back to work again, no matter what happens at the end of the third season. But yeah, that takes us all the way through even the fourth season, for sure.
What about Jeremy’s role? It seemed like he was dipping a toe back in the water of trying to help Rachel, or be there for her, but we kinda don’t understand that yet.
STACY: So Jeremy … Speaking of drugs. Rachel is really kind of a drug for Jeremy too. In episode nine, I believe Jeremy has a huge wake-up call that he finally … ‘Cause it was sort of one thing in the first episode of this season for him to say, “I killed those people basically for you, Rachel, because you told me to.” And it seems almost matter of fact, the way that he’s saying it. And it takes the entire season, really, for him to actually process, “Oh my God. I killed two people. Holy shit. This is what I did.” And for Rachel, because he believed he loved her, and believed he was helping her, and this kind of work family that they have. But it’s horrifying to him, and the fact that he got away with it is even more horrifying. I often feel that people who have done bad things who don’t have to pay for them are almost in a worse kind of psychic condition because they know what they’ve done, and they know they haven’t paid for it. And I do believe that that is where Jeremy is. For Rachel, Jeremy has always been like her fail-safe, in a way. No matter if she tries to make it work with Adam (Freddie Stroma), or whatever other guy, and if it doesn’t work out she can always go back to Jeremy. And no matter what, Jeremy always loves her, and Jeremy loves her so much that he was willing to run those two people off the road. And finally, she doesn’t necessarily go back to him, but she sort of suspects that he’s saying he wants to get back with her, in the finale. And he corrects her and says, “Absolutely not.” That he doesn’t ever wanna be with her again, and that he realizes that she’s a stain that he is gonna have to live with for the rest of his life. Because he has realized, again, like I said, what he has done and who he is now. And he does in fact leave the show, and for good. He is not in the fourth season. And he talks about how he is going to have to find a way to live with himself for the rest of his life. And he’s incredibly troubled about that, as he should be, frankly. And I don’t know what kinda life Jeremy has ahead of himself, but he’s finally really realizing that, and getting the hell outta this environment that’s incredibly toxic.
Would you say the show is inherently — the way it’s designed, whether it be Everlasting or another type of reality show like that — that it’s inherently toxic and traumatic for people onscreen and offscreen? Like the crew that are working on it? ‘Cause it seems like we’re seeing both sides going through the same kind of trauma, and reacting through it a little bit differently, but everybody’s going through it together.
STACY: Yeah, absolutely. That is definitely one of the themes that we’ve been looking at from the beginning, is just not only that the “princess fantasy” that these shows perpetuate is incredibly destructive to our society, but the sort of hate-watching, and the girl-on-girl hate that these shows also promote is incredibly destructive to our society. And the people who are making it know that, and it’s equally destructive for them.
It’s the “human cost” that we’re seeing. I don’t think people recognize there’s a “human cost” when they’re watching it, or participating in it, or making those kinds of shows. What that emotional toll is gonna put on your psyche.
STACY: Yeah. I agree. And hopefully when they watch UnREAL they get more of a sense of that.
I’ve always got the idea that at the end of the season, UnREAL wants to show a win for our characters. Like they have to get away with it, whatever their crime is, or gotten away with manipulating these people into whatever they think would be best for them. Are we gonna see another big win for them? Or is this gonna be like taking them to the edge and then just maybe letting ’em fall right over?
STACY: I think it’s a big win for both Rachel and Quinn. I don’t think it’s a big win for Serena at all. That was part and parcel of what we were looking at in terms of, like I was talking about, this tyranny of choice. She rejected both guys. She made a decision on one of the guys, and then Rachel, because of this other stuff that happened, really goes to the dark side and talked her out of it, and got her to choose neither guy because Rachel is so freaked out about being alone and everything. So Serena does not have a happy ending. And I believe she is doomed to this “tyranny of choice” that I’m talking about, and that that’s gonna probably keep her single for a long time. But, Rachel and Quinn, I believe they each have a triumphant ending. Whether or not those triumphant endings last as we go into Season 4, we’ll have to see. But I think that we take them to a place that feels triumphant.
After a roller-coaster ride of a season, UNREAL finishes the race for love with another quest unfulfilled. But that does not mean that the show has abandoned its search, it just means that it is left for another day. Hopefully, in Season 4, we will finally get to see where that quest ends. Can there ever truly be a happily-ever-after ending for Rachel, Quinn and Chet? Be sure to keep an eye out for Season 4 of UNREAL for that answer as well as seeing who is returning for the “Everlasting” All Stars.