As reality TV-focused drama UnReal ends after four seasons, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser reflects on the show’s controversial storylines and the rise of female anti-heroes.
UnReal, the US drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a reality dating competition, went out with a bang when its fourth and final season landed on SVoD platform Hulu last month.
The exploits of Quinn King, Rachel Goldberg and the team behind fictional matchmaking series Everlasting have served to both shock and amaze audiences since the series launched on US cable network Lifetime in 2015, going on to win a Peabody Award for its first season.
That it was based on the real inner workings of reality shows like the one at its centre has only increased the attention paid to UnReal. It was inspired by co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, itself a behind-the-scenes look at a reality TV show, with Shapiro also once a producer on real-life dating series The Bachelor.
“We hear a lot in the reality TV industry about how real [UnReal] is,” reveals Stacy Rukeyser, a writer on UnReal since season one and showrunner on the final two seasons. “We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Oh they should call it Real, not UnReal.’ That was always terrifying to me because we showed these terrible, terrible things.”
From the beginning, UnReal has pulled back the curtain on the way reality television works, highlighting the ways producers (in the show’s case, Rachel, steered by Everlasting executive producer Quinn) manipulate the contestants in the quest for high ratings. As Rachel says in season one: “Producers produce things. I create conditions for things to happen.”
Season four of UnReal follows Rachel and Quinn as they return to the set of Everlasting for an ‘All Stars’ season, with former contestants and a new format that means the show-within-a-show is poised to be even more dramatic than ever.
UnReal also offers commentary on society’s relationship with reality television, and this season confronts the ‘hate watching’ phenomenon around the genre, with viewers tuning in not to enjoy the show but to snipe about the contestants.
In addition, it draws on a real-life scandal that engulfed ABC reality series Bachelor in Paradise. That show shut down production last year following allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the contestants, though an investigation later found no evidence of wrongdoing. In UnReal, producer Jay makes a complaint that Rachel twists into a publicity stunt.
“We have been looking at how dangerous these shows are for our culture because they’re perpetuating these myths about relationships, and women in particular – that we should look great in a bikini, sit in the hot tub and be really interested in the guy,” Rukeyser says. “And in exchange, he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner, and that’s what a relationship looks like. That’s really dangerous.”
Rukeyser joined UnReal, which is produced by A+E Studios, in season one as a writer and to also step in for then-showrunner Marti Noxon when she was working on her other series at the time, Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.
“When we were writing the first season, I really had no idea that the show was going to be a buzzy, critical hit,” she admits. What she did know, however, was that UnReal would be about flawed women and would be full of risk-taking storylines. One Everlasting contestant commits suicide in the sixth episode, for example.
Season one sparked conversations around the emergence of female anti-heroes, feminism and female relationships, as drawn through the pairing of Quinn and Rachel. “I really had no idea it was going to have such an effect. When people were saying, ‘It’s the female Breaking Bad,’ I never stopped to think, ‘It’s a female protagonist who’s flawed and evil,’ and I certainly never stopped to think we had not just one but two female protagonists,” the showrunner says. “It just felt like these were women I’d recognise.
“The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is really the love story of the series, even though it’s not a romantic love story, and to have that much focus on female relationships, which are so central for us and, I believe, can withstand awful behaviour and [allow us to] understand each other and support each other, that’s been really exciting too.”
The strength of the relationship between Rachel and Quinn also comes down to the partnership between the actors who play them, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, respectively. Both have also directed episodes of UnReal, with Appleby helming the series finale.
“There’s so much of what Shiri does as Rachel that is non-verbal. If she is expressing so much of who that person is and what she is experiencing just through her face and eyes, there’s been an inherent vulnerability and likability in her that has made her root for Rachel and want her to get out [of Everlasting] by the end of the series,” Rukeyser says. “But it’s been incredible to be able to write in a more spare kind of way because you can trust she’s going to tell the rest of the story in a non-verbal way.”
As for Quinn, Rukeyser sees her as “one of the great characters in TV history,” explaining: “It would be very easy for the Quinn character to turn into an evil bitch, but it was never that way with her. Constance adds so many layers to her performance. It’s magic when you find two actresses who are not only spectacular individually but spectacular in the way they interact with each other. And it has really been such a privilege to write for them.”
Having previously worked on series including One Tree Hill, Crash and The Lying Game, Rukeyser has been writing and rewriting scripts on UnReal since the beginning. It proved to be a good training ground for the transition she made to become showrunner at the beginning of season three. “I knew I could do the job, so that was reassuring. But also, the show means so much to so many people who make it, so what’s been a really gratifying part of my job is, if I’m doing my job right, there are 200 people who feel responsible for the success of the show. It’s been great to be running a show that is about something, that sparks conversations and also means so much to the people making it.”
Beyond the issues it raises and the show-in-a-show format it has so successfully created, it’s the characters at the heart of UnReal that Rukeyser believes will be its legacy.
“We’re part of this groundswell of ‘unlikeable female protagonists’ you see more and more on television. We’re seeing a lot more of them and I hope we continue to see a lot more of them because they feel like complicated, flawed women who I recognise,” she says.
“In terms of the comment on reality television, I don’t think that conversation is done. I don’t even think that conversation is really happening. We have so many fans to who tell us, ‘I love your show and I watch The Bachelor all the time’ – I sometimes cannot understand how that’s possible. There is something deeply embedded in our society – that princess fantasy that some man will come along and sweep me off my feet is still so desirable to so many women, unfortunately. So I would love for someone else to take that conversation on, because the conversation for sure is not done.”
But with the fourth season moving from Lifetime to Hulu, is there no way back for the show and a potential fifth season? “I don’t think so,” says Rukeyser, who has a pilot with Lifetime among other new projects in development. “I think this is it.”
A host of female characters are rewriting the rules for women on television. DQ explores how they are being brought to the small screen to front series ranging from contemporary crime dramas and thrillers to period and historical series.
There have been some great female characters in scripted TV down the years – the likes of Cagney & Lacey, DI Jane Tennison and Buffy ‘the Vampire Slayer’ Summers all spring to mind. But there’s no question that the last few years have seen the range and quality of roles for women expand dramatically. Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Borgen, Orphan Black, GLOW and UnReal are just a few shows that have rewritten the rules when it comes to gender on TV.
For FremantleMedia director of global drama Sarah Doole, this is a sign the TV industry is finally catching up with audience tastes. “Research shows women are in charge of the remote control until 21.30, but most of the iconic dramas you can think of focus on middle-aged white men,” she says. “So what we are seeing is a new world order that reflects audience demands.”
Doole says FremantleMedia’s production slate is addressing this in various ways: “You can see it in Hard Sun, where Agyness Deyn [playing DI Elaine Renko] is not your normal heroine. She is capable of motherly tenderness but also incredible violence. She’s an androgynous, modern character that reaches a new, younger audience. And in Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Friend, we focus on the intricacies of female friendship – issues that women don’t usually see on television.”
Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler says the improved gender balance is also linked to greater representation of women behind the camera. While there have always been a few female role models like Lynda La Plante, “a lot of women of my generation who started out as script editors have now reached positions where they are running companies or making commissioning decisions,” Shindler says. “The result has been more shows with complex and interesting women.”
Red shows with memorable female leads include Happy Valley (starring Sarah Lancashire), Trust Me (starring new Doctor Who lead Jodie Whittaker, pictured above) and Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp). The idea for the latter came from Jones and Sally Lindsay, with Jones keen for more female roles “that weren’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to et cetera.” The series was then scripted by Sally Wainwright, with a directorial team skewed towards women. “It was a ground-breaking show,” says Shindler, “because so much of it was based around the camera pointing at women characters and them talking to each other.”
Inevitably, a lot of recent female-centric shows revolve around cops (Happy Valley, The Fall, Vera). But there are a growing number of shows that explore women in atypical social roles and contexts. After The Night Manager, for example, The Ink Factory is working on another John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. In this thriller, says The Ink Factory’s Simon Cornwell, Florence Pugh portrays female spy Charlie, “an engaging, nuanced and rewarding character, with strong agency and purpose.” Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, adds: “For me, creating roles for women that do not conform to male-defined stereotypes is more interesting.”
The mythology of the spy genre has historically been male-dominated, but Cornwell believes The Little Drummer Girl highlights the fact that women have always played a key role in espionage: “Charlie is, I hope, completely authentic as a character. She’s also not ‘atypical’ because there have been and continue to be real women involved in espionage. I think the show highlights the presence of women who were involved but possibly overlooked or not acknowledged.”
Of course, there are some shows where women play roles not at all intended to be grounded in realism. But the prevailing view is this is fine as long as the characters behave authentically within their version of reality world. A compelling example of this is Wynnona Earp, Syfy’s popular series about the granddaughter of legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp, whose mission in life is to dispatch demonic cowboys who have returned from the dead.
Wynonna started life as a comic book character in 1993, at which point she was a textbook example of comic-geek male erotic fantasy. But for the TV series, says IDW Entertainment CEO David Ozer, “we’ve pivoted completely, as we have also done in the modern versions of the comic books. This is a show led by empowered female characters that also has a strong LGBT component, centred around Wynonna’s sister Waverley.”
The success of this pivot is largely down to the show’s female showrunner Emily Andras and star Melanie Scrofano, says Ozer. “Between them, they’ve created a really relatable character who is more than just a female gunslinger. You can see the female voice of the show running through all the storylines – including the relationship between Wynonna and her sister. In fact, when Melanie got pregnant just before the start of shooting season two, Emily managed to take that and weave it into the existing storylines without missing a beat.”
This isn’t to suggest men can’t write empowered female characters. Neil Cross has done it in Hard Sun and Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley likewise in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, whose female characters include a working mother (a lawyer), a rebellious teenager, an AI expert and a bunch of highly advanced androids, known as synths. Mia and Niska, synths played by Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington respectively, go on journeys that deal starkly with issues around female sexual exploitation, empowerment and awakening.
Interestingly, season three of the show also has a strong female contingent behind the camera, in terms of writers, directors, producer (Vicki Delow) and exec producer (Emma Kingsman-Lloyd). Delow calls it “good female representation, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen five years ago. And that certainly leads to some interesting debates about the female characters and the way they might be expected to behave.”
Kingsman-Lloyd says “there is probably a bit more of a female voice in this season.” Particularly influential, she adds, has been the input of director Jill Robertson, whose recent credits include Harlots. “There’s still a real shortage of female directors in action-based series,” she says, “but Jill is an extraordinary talent who directed the first two episodes of the new season.”
The idea of authenticity within a heightened reality scenario also underpins the Nordic success story Black Widows, made in Finland but sold around the world. In this show, three women in abusive relationships decide to take change of their lives by murdering their husbands. A big challenge with the show, says producer Roope Lehtinen, was “making it so that people rooted for the women even after they’d killed their husbands. I think we achieved that by not dwelling too long on the murder scene, making the guys really disgusting and also giving the show a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
The ensemble nature of the show (something that is still more typical of female-led than male-led drama) meant it was possible to explore the shifting dynamics of the relationships between the women, but also how they reacted individually to what they had done. “They each have their own distinct voice,” says Lehtinen, “including one of them who is not quite as moral as her two friends. It’s important that female characters can have the same anti-hero flavour as we are used to with men.”
Most producers and showrunners agree that female characters need to be messy and complicated, not sanitised or sanctified. “Complicated, messed-up women are the only kind of women I know,” says Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, which tells the story of two manipulative ratings-seeking female producers running a salacious dating show. “Real, relatable women have a strong appeal to TV audiences.”
Rukeyser says the show also stands out “because it’s still rare to see women at work outside of detective series. And I think it’s taken on a new significance during the last year. There may have been a sense that some of the issues around gender equality weren’t that relevant anymore, but now the whole debate about equal pay for men and women has exploded.”
Ellie Beaumont, co-creator (with Drew Proffitt) of Australian crime drama Dead Lucky, also favours shows that depict flawed women: “Our central character in Dead Lucky [a detective played by Rachel Griffiths] has a strong sense of social justice but she also has a temper and speaks before thinking. The best characters – of either gender – are always flawed.”
One interesting way of addressing the gender imbalance in TV drama has been to portray early-to-mid-20th century female characters challenging social stereotypes, such as in Bomb Girls, Ku’damm 56 and Call the Midwife. Susann Billberg, a producer at Sweden’s Jarowskij, identifies similar themes in Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), a period family saga that her company produces in collaboration with SVT, Viaplay and Film i Väst.
“The series explores the Swedish class system from the late 1940s and how these barriers began to break down,” she says. “It shines a light on the different female perspectives and their involvement in helping society progress. Nina is headstrong and determined to break class norms by building a nightclub. Then there is waitress and single mother Maggan who champions women’s rights in the workplace.” Another female powerhouse, adds Billberg, is Helga, the family matriarch played by Suzanne Reuter.
From Canada, Frankie Drake Mysteries is another period show, set in the 1920s, that depicts a woman defying stereotypes, this time as a private eye. Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury and executive producer of the show, says: “At its heart, Frankie Drake Mysteries is about female empowerment. Frankie is a woman living life on her own terms, building a career of her own design and empowering other women along the way. We wanted to explore this era and its challenges through the lives of a group of women working together to solve crimes.”
Canada “is in a good place right now in terms of producing series with women in lead roles,” says Jennings, whose company also produced vampire web series Carmilla. “There is a focused effort to ensure women are taking their place behind the camera, and this helps inform the stories.”
But how do producers approach gender in earlier period drama, where the assumption might be that women were treated as second-class citizens? Take a show like Versailles, for example. “It is true that Versailles was an arena created by Louis XIV to impose his absolute power,” says Aude Albano, an executive producer from Versailles prodco CAPA Drama, “and 17th century France was generally ruled by men. But women also used to play an essential role in that environment and it was important to us to depict and highlight it in the show. It was not our intention to make a feminist show, but it was our intention to use what we found fascinating in history and bring a modern look.”
One way into this subject was the fact that Louis was raised by a very strong woman, Anne of Austria. “The relationship Louis had with his mother had a clear impact on his attraction to strong and smart women, such as Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon,” says Albano. “This gave us the scope to create strong, complex and singular female characters, each one of them coming with their drives, their flaws, their ambitions.”
Another option with period drama is to go so far back in history that there is little guidance on the gender roles. In Sky series Britannia, the creative team constructed a vision of a gender-balanced Britain fighting against a tyrannical Rome. “The little we know of those times was mostly written by the Romans,” says James Richardson, co-founder of producer Vertigo Films, “and they were a patriarchal, quasi-fascistic state. But there is evidence that ancient Britain was a more egalitarian society with female queens and warriors. That gave us something to play with.”
This opened up powerful roles for the likes of Zoe Wanamaker, who plays the ferocious Queen of the Regnis tribe Antedia, and Kelly Reilly, the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii tribe. There’s also a key role for Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays Cait, a teenage girl whose family are murdered by the Romans just as she is coming of age. “I don’t like the notion of ‘strong’ female characters, but what [writers] Jez and Tom Butterworth gave Britannia was interesting women – funny, fierce, complicated, messed up – front and centre of the story,” Richardson adds.
Worthington Cox’s role is a reminder that teenagers and young women are rarely portrayed in a meaningful way in mainstream TV drama. Shows that tackle this gap include Clique, The Girlfriend Experience and upcoming series Hanna, written by David Farr and based on the movie of the same name.
Hanna is an NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) and Working Title Television production for Amazon. A high-concept thriller that differs in tone from the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same name, it follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, accompanied by her battle-hardened father, as she evades the relentless pursuit of a female CIA agent. “What makes it especially interesting,” says NBCUIS executive VP of scripted programming JoAnn Alfano, “is that it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who, for the past 15 years, has been raised in isolation in the remote forests of northern Poland. She’s extraordinary, but what she wants most of all is to be normal. Pitching the character at this age is important to the show because she’s finding out what it is to be a woman. And, at the same time, she’s learning how to have a mind of her own.”
Of course, the debate about gender has intensified in the last year as a result of the numerous sexual abuse and harassment scandals that have gripped the media sector. The Ink Factory’s Cornwell says: “Initiatives like #MeToo, and the questions raised by our sudden recognition of behaviours in our industry that have been endemic and profoundly inappropriate, are forcing us to examine not just our actions but the social norms that have led to those behaviours or created an environment in which they could flourish. We need to address the way we have been perpetuating or internalising problematic gender constructs and behaviours through the worlds we create.”
Shindler raises a salient point, which is that the new gender balance on TV isn’t just about what women do on screen, but what they don’t do: “In Red shows, rape is never a story – and we don’t depict dead female bodies. We made a decision in our TV dramas not to portray women in our dramas as victims.”