Rachel and Quinn in UnREAL (Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime), and showrunner Stacy Rukeyser (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images). Graphic: Natalie Peeples.

In the 18 months since UnREAL aired its second-season finale, a former reality-TV star was elected president of the United States, while a different, similarly powerful sexual predator was ousted from his Hollywood kingdom. In that time, UnREAL writer Stacy Rukeyser was promoted to showrunner, overseeing a third season that marks a first for the Lifetime drama, though not necessarily for its Bachelor/Bachelorette-esque show-within-the-show: Caitlin FitzGerald stars as “suitress” Serena, a high-powered executive seeking a soul mate on the fictional dating competition Everlasting. The cunning Silicon Valley mogul is a unique challenge for the cunning producers at the center of Everlasting, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), whose fight for control of the show is now complicated not only by their own conflicts, the secrets they share, and the co-workers who try to undermine them, but also by the ways they see themselves reflected in Serena. Ahead of the season’s February 26 premiere, Rukeyser spoke to The A.V. Club about real life imitating UnREAL, dealing with the fallout from the show’s second season, and why we no longer have the luxury of not taking reality TV seriously.

The A.V. Club: How does it feel to step into the showrunner position?

Stacy Rukeyser: It’s incredibly exciting to have this opportunity, to have a chance to decide what stories we’re going to tell and themes we’re going to explore this season. And I’m really excited about the opportunity to talk about gender politics in the way that we are.

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I had worked with Marti Noxon before, on another show called Gigantic, and she had brought me in to run that when she was not going to be around. And that was a similar thing here on UnREAL, because she had two shows on the air when UnREAL started—she had this, and Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce. And so I read the script and was just so drawn to the central, internal conflict in Rachel, who is this feminist who finds herself working on [a dating reality show] and kind of hates herself for it, and hates the fact that she’s actually really good at it and gets off on manipulating these women. It just felt like such rich territory for me.

AVC: Do you feel like your prior UnREAL experience helped you out in that transition?

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SR: Yeah. First and foremost, the showrunner is a writer. And that is what I have been doing since season one. And I’ve been also in the trenches with Sarah Shapiro, who is the other co-creator of the show, since season one, in terms of writing the stories and editing. I certainly go to Vancouver a lot more [Laughs.] now as the showrunner, and work with the actors. And that was one of the things that I really wanted to make sure of when I took over as showrunner. Oftentimes when you’re shooting in a different city from where the writers are, it can be difficult, and people feel bifurcated and not all part of this one group that’s making this show. So I wanted to make sure that Shiri and Constance and all the actors really felt heard and that we were having these really deep conversations about story and what we were doing thematically and I think that’s one of the things I’m proudest of: We’ve really been doing that for the third season as well as the fourth.

AVC: The show feels particularly relevant this year, given the ongoing discussion about misogyny, sexual harassment, and power dynamics in the entertainment industry. You’ve said elsewhere that season three was ready to air by August 2017—that’s before the Harvey Weinstein story re-surfaced, before #MeToo went viral, and before Time’s Up was founded. Does that timing feel oddly coincidental?

SR: It really does. We were, of course, anxious to get this season out there, and Lifetime has this bigger scripted slate that we’re a part of, and I get all of that, but we were just champing at the bit to get the season released. But now, it seems incredibly fortuitous that this is the moment when it’s coming out. And I wish that I could say that we were prescient, and that we could feel that there was a change coming, and that’s why we started writing these things—but we really didn’t. What we are are human beings who have lived in the world, but also in particular, that we are women in Hollywood, we have experiences here, and so much of this show is about women at work, and the struggles and obstacles.

I was very excited to have an opportunity to write about these things. Not just for Rachel and Quinn and their own struggle in Hollywood—that is incredibly cathartic, to channel any frustrations or roadblocks that I may have had in my own career into their stories—but also with Serena, the feminist suitress. The story was very personal to both me and Sarah Shapiro. I was 37 when I met my husband, I definitely had started to think I’m probably not going to get married, I’m probably not going to have kids. And that was sort of okay, because my career was going well. But I was sad and frustrated inside and also really kind of confused: “Why isn’t it happening for me the way it happened for my friends?” It felt like a very relatable thing for a lot of women, and also a very specific plight of some women who find the higher they climb the ladder at work, the harder it is to find a guy.

We were pitching the idea for the season before Donald Trump was even president. And everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president. And there was sort of the thought of, well, is it really still going to be relevant, because Hillary’s going to be president, and isn’t everybody passed that? Which, even if Hillary Clinton had become president, I think is overly optimistic. But I think we came to see, to a great degree, how there is nothing scarier to a great portion of America than a smart, strong woman. And that made it even more important to tell that story.

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(Photo: James Dittiger)

AVC: Were there any other ways that the results of the presidential election, and what has come after it, may have shifted the way you were approaching season three? There’s a life-imitating-art feeling to watching the new episodes, in that truth and reality in our world feel like they’re just as easily manipulated as the truth and reality on Everlasting.

SR: And isn’t that so sad. [Laughs.] We are past the point of not being able to take reality television seriously, because it has given us our current president. And that line in the first episode wehre Rachel says to Serena—“You’re smart, pretty, and successful: Half of America already hates you”—that came straight out of seeing the vitriol that Hillary Clinton received on the campaign trail. And, frankly, how almost half of America was perfectly fine that Trump has talked about women. And that’s frightening to me, and upsetting. It made it even more important to tell this story.

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It is, frankly, confusing right now, to figure out how or who you’re supposed to be as a woman. Because we’re encouraged at work to be “Rah rah! You go girl! Reclaim your time! Lean in! Demand equal pay!” And yet, when you go on a date, you are supposed to magically turn into a different creature who is a much more demure, traditional definition of femininity. That’s really hard, that’s really maddening. Those same qualities of being smart and strong are just easily turned around into critical terms: “She’s difficult, she’s opinionated, she’s bitchy, she’s intimidating.” It’s very easy to turn in on yourself and go, “Is it me? Am I doing this all wrong, who am I supposed to be, what will make me attractive?”

And who is the right partner for a woman like that? We’re finding more and more women who are the primary breadwinner in families, and so for a woman like Serena, should she be with an alpha male who, together they would be a power couple? That’s celebrated a lot, and that sounds good. Or should she be with more of a more “beta” guy, who will let her be the star at work and he can stay at home and take care of the kids? Is that the way we should be arranging these kinds of families or relationships? I don’t think there’s any one answer for anyone, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I think we’re just asking these questions and trying to figure it all out. Any of these options is better than saying, “We should go back to 1950 and have women stay home and bake cookies.”

Genevieve Buechner (left), Craig Bierko, Constance Zimmer, Shiri Appleby, and Caitlin FitzGerald (Photo: James Dittiger)

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AVC: Do you feel like those are questions you can ask not only of Serena, but also of Rachel, Quinn, and even Madison?

SR: Oh yeah, for sure. Part of the reason to do that storyline—aside from just how interested I was in that sort of plight for a women, personally—is that Serena becomes an avatar for Rachel and Quinn to project all of their own issues about being smart, strong, successful, and yet single women. I feel that Rachel, it’s her whole idea to do the feminist suitress, it’s like, “Yes, Rachel always has high-minded ideals for the kinds of stories and people that she’s going to put on the show.” But even more so it feels very personal in terms of Quinn. She found out at the end of the last season she can’t have kids, she preemptively broke up with her boyfriend, and all that was fine for her because her career was going so well. At the beginning of the third season, the show’s been shut down for six months, her career’s really taken a hit, and so there’s a real panic underneath to get the career back. Because that’s so much of how she self-identifies.

Rachel, I think, sees all of this before she decides to come back. And part of her reason in choosing Serena is to prove to Quinn that she—and women like her, but she in particular—is lovable. Of course, Quinn doesn’t care about any of that. She just wants a good TV show and a successful TV show and great ratings. But even she, by the end of the season, has to decide if that is enough for her, or if she wants some sort of romantic human connection.

With Madison, she has always wanted to skip to the front of the line. [Laughs.] and has always wanted to not put in the time and the hard work, and looked for the easier way to get ahead. And I think that’s real, too, in terms of what some women do, and how it works out for some women. But what’s even more upsetting to me about the story is how Quinn reacts when she discovers what Madison is doing. Because that of course is another stereotype about women at work: We don’t support each other, and there’s only room for one at the top. And I think that Quinn’s reaction is a really surprising one, and I’m really proud of it, because I don’t believe that that’s true. And that’s not how I operate, that’s not how other women that I know operate. So that’s an exciting thing to look at. And it’s very relevant in this moment in time, and we had—yes, going both ways—sexual harassment cases and issues in this season before the world knew what a monster Harvey Weinstein was, let alone everybody else that’s come into the news.

AVC: When you’re tackling stereotypes and perceptions and topics along those lines, how do you approach those and write those and explore them without accidentally reinforcing them?

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SR: You have to have a real point of view about what you’re trying to say. And I also think you have to leave the conclusion up to the audience. The other characters give Madison a lot of shit, for example, about the past. It’s pretty clear that the point of view of UnREAL is that sleeping your way to the top, or whatever she’s trying to do, is not the way to go. And that we celebrate these women who are doing the actual work, putting in the time, maybe not getting all the credit for it they deserve. But that that is much more celebrated. I’d like to think that that point of view is clear in UnREAL. With Serena, raising these questions of, “Is she perfectly lovable as she is? Or does she come across kind of abrasive, and should she tone it down?” I think we’re trying to raise all of those issues and have all of our characters have points of view about what she’s doing, so that we can get our point across.

Caitlin FitzGerald (left), Shiri Appleby, and Constance Zimmer (Photo: James Dittiger)

AVC: Are Rachel and Quinn accustomed to working with someone who can outmaneuver them the way that Serena can?

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SR: This is definitely a new experience for them. They talk about how the kinds of women that they normally have on the show—when they have had a suitress in the past—have just sort of asked, “Do I look cute? And where should I stand?” That is a lot easier to manipulate. That was also why it was so fun to write this, to have another, third female character—fourth, if you count Madison—who is really strong and has a real point of view and a real intention of what she wants, and she’s not going to just be pushed around. But despite her great, honest, intentions of trying to find a husband through this show, Serena does not anticipate how the contestants on these shows are manipulated, how she herself can be manipulated, the buttons they can push inside of you to feel a certain way and therefore act out. It speaks to the broader theme of UnREAL, which is about talking about reality television and these shows and just how detrimental they can be.

AVC: Season two left you with some huge consequences to deal with, in terms of the car crash that Jeremy orchestrated. When you write something like that—it’s a little bit of a cliffhanger, it’s something to deal with down the line—does that feel daunting? Does it give you something to write toward? Is it some combination of both? 

SR: I think it’s both. That was a big plot twist, for sure. And not only that [Jeremy] did it, but that Quinn, Rachel, and Chet all knew about it, and were kind of in on it. And then even more so, what was particularly interesting to me was what was Rachel’s responsibility in making that happen? If you look back at the scene in the grip truck in the season finale, where she is talking to Jeremy and saying what a bad situation they’re in, and how Coleman and Yael are going to the press, and they’re all sort of done for. Is she venting, as she claims to Jeremy in season three, or was she producing him? And, again, I think we left it open enough so that the audience could come to their own determination. Personally, I do believe that there was an element of producing him. I believe she might not have known what he would do, or that he would go as far as he went, but I think she knows Jeremy and she knows how much Jeremy loves her, and therefore she knew that he would do something. And that is part of what Rachel has to come to terms with, with the help of her “real-ass shrink,” as we call him, who she has on the set for the first time.

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I knew we had to deal with the consequences of what had happened—not only with the car crash but with all of the other big plot points that happened in season two. And I didn’t want to pretend that those things hadn’t happened, or shy away from them. But I wanted to take the time to really sit with them and deal with the consequences of those plot points, from an emotional and a psychological standpoint. And to really take the whole season to explore the effects on these people of what had happened.

AVC: Lifetime has already ordered a fourth season of UnREAL, which will focus on an all-star season of Everlasting. There’s a whole history of the show-within-the show that’s been left to the audience’s imagination. Is there a show bible or anything that lays out the history or the lore of the show within UnREAL?

SR: That would be a good idea! [Laughs.] We should get somebody on that! It’s funny because we have a script coordinator and writer’s assistants who help us with this—the script coordinator, whose job it was to keep track of, “What are we saying? What season was it that this person was in? And what happened? And when did Rachel come to the show? And when did Rachel have her breakdown? What season was that?” It was all part of our creation, really, for the fourth season. There are certainly characters who are back who were on our first three seasons, but then there are also other characters who we created a history for, who the UnREAL audience hasn’t seen, but with whom Rachel and Quinn and everyone else has a history.

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