Lifetime’s fictional take on the dating reality show genre is about to get a whole lot more twisted.
UnReal, airing Mondays at 10 p.m., chronicles the behind-the-scenes drama, tensions and manipulations of a fictitious popular Bachelor-style dating competition series Everlasting, as led by demanding executive producer Quinn King (House of Cards’ Constance Zimmer).
The one-hour drama, created by former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, isn’t shy about titillating audiences – it relies on it. In the premiere alone, one Everlasting contestant is quickly branded “the villain,” gets rejected by the bachelor in the first episode and later manipulated to drunkenly reveal her tragic past (think emancipation and a stint at a psych ward type stuff), caught on camera of course. In a future episode, producers work an unexpected death to their advantage, all in the name of good TV.
And the critics are noticing. It was named one of the Most Exciting New Series at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards, alongside high-profile projects such as Fox’s Scream Queens and CBS’ Supergirl, and has garnered positive notices by The Hollywood Reporter (“a thought-provoking soap opera with love triangles and mother issues”) and Variety (“a savvy, acerbic look at how the reality-TV sausage gets made”).
ETonline recently jumped on the phone with Zimmer, who also stars in the Entourage movie (in theaters now), to chat all things UnReal.
What intrigued you about reality TV as you became immersed in that universe through this show?
Constance Zimmer: I had not been a big watcher of reality shows so when the project came to me I was confused by it. I thought, “I don’t understand this. Is this really what’s happening on these shows?” Then I actually watched a few reality shows and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on television. I get it; I get the draw to it – but when we were shooting our show, it was eye-opening. I kept thinking, “I hope this is an exaggerated version of the truth because if there’s any truth in this – even the smallest amount – it’s still terrifying.” I can’t believe the stuff Lifetime allowed us to shoot and film. There are some stuff coming up in the upcoming episodes – it gets very dark and very twisted and I just hope people are ready for it.
It really doesn’t feel like the quintessential Lifetime show, and that’s a good thing.
That’s definitely what drew me to the project. We all have our labels that we’ve given Lifetime, just like the labels that we’ve given to the girls on the show. Lifetime wanted to break out of it and this was the show that they wanted to do that for them. I think it can and I think it already has. This show has catapulted [Lifetime] into a different world, which you have to do nowadays. There is so much content out there that you have to step outside of your comfort zone. That’s what [Lifetime] did with this show and that’s what it felt like as we were filming it.
In a recent interview, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro detailed her experience with The Bachelor and how soul-sucking it became. Was there a specific thing she told you about her time there that struck you?
Sarah has such a fascinating backstory in general – she’s a feminist, she’s a writer, she’s been in various worlds and the stories she tells are unfathomable that she’s made it through. She has such a fresh voice and there is so much emotion under her words. Quinn being an unfiltered woman, I needed to make sure that people love to hate her or hate to love her and Sarah was excited about exploring [that]. Quinn is strong but still incredibly flawed – everybody in this show is flawed and I haven’t seen that on a TV series in a long time.
Is Quinn the most flawed character on the show?
No! (Laughs.) That’s what was so fascinating. The difference with Quinn is she isn’t hiding, at least not yet. You’ll get to see a little bit of her world and where her pain and suffering comes from. Everyone is suffering, they just have different ways of showing it and Quinn has been in the business long enough to be more guarded than everyone else.
Fair to say she’s desensitized to the daily emotional manipulations?
Oh definitely. That’s what I love about Quinn and Shiri Appleby’s character, Rachel [the young producer who returns to Everlasting after a dramatic breakdown in the previous season]. They’re both really good at a really hard job. But if you do a good job, the reward is greater than what you did to get there.
Because UnReal is very meta in the sense that we’re watching a scripted drama about the making of a TV show, did you find yourself at times believing that you were an executive producer on a reality dating competition?
(Laughs.) No, Quinn is definitely not a character I try to stay in that mindset. She has a lot going on that when they say “Cut!” I would apologize to everybody and I have a lot of downtime when I had to get rid of Quinn. Sometimes I don’t even know how to explain her. I love her but she is so conflicted and so complicated.
What’s interesting about Quinn and Rachel is the way they handle the rigors of the job is vastly different from the other.
You’re seeing a mentor and a mentee, and it’s very much a mother-daughter relationship too where they need each other, more than they’re ever going to admit. There is a true love [between them], they just have really bad ways of showing it.
Speaking of love, Quinn is currently mixing business with pleasure with her boss Chet (Craig Bierko). How much drama arises from their affair?
The show is about love and the lengths people will go to find it or to keep it. There’s this priness fantasy, which a lot of reality TV taps into for men and women, and it’s the idea of “What is true love?” It can mean something to you and something else to another person. The Quinn and Chet relationship is definitely one that is confused about what is the real meaning of love. We dive into a lot more with a lot of the characters, especially the ones in front of the camera because they’re doing it for various reasons – some real and some fake. Then there are those behind the cameras, when it’s their real lives and their real struggles. Hopefully you start feeling for both sides. In the end we all have hearts, it’s just a matter of how big they are and if we’re willing to wear them on our sleeves or not.
Is there a blueprint for a second season should Lifetime renew UnReal?
When and if we get another season, maybe we dive into another reality show. It wouldn’t necessarily be one suitor and 25 girls, it could be the opposite. We could turn the tables and have one female and 25 men. The reality world is so rich and there are so many shows that we can jump from one TV show to another.
Now that you’ve filmed 10 episodes of UnReal, has your perception of shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette changed?
I feel like whether you watched reality television or not before watching our show, I think that it’s going to draw people back to reality television because you’re going to want to watch as a viewer and see if you can spot the manipulation and the editing. Being far more aware of it now, you might watch the show differently. I don’t think it’ll make them not watch them, that’s for sure.
You mentioned that the show takes a darker turn. What can viewers expect for the rest of the season?
You will be utterly shocked at the lengths that people will go to behind the scenes and in front of the camera to meet their goals, whatever their goals are. It’s terrifying what people will do to get the needs met.
UnReal airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
Go behind the scenes of UnReal, Lifetime's scripted take on the reality show genre!