EXCLUSIVE: 'UnREAL' Co-Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro Isn't Afraid to Go Big, and It's Paying Off
By Philiana Ng
“It’s go hard or go home.”
That’s how UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro describes Lifetime’s surprise hit -- and she’s not wrong. Based on Shapiro’s award-winning 2013 short film Sequin Raze, UnREAL has done exactly that, unapologetic in its biting examination (and sometimes criticism) of race, women in the workplace and reality television.
Two seasons in, Shapiro is reaping the benefits of UnREAL’s unimaginable critical and cultural success, landing her a first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series (shared with co-creator Marti Noxon) for the pilot episode. It’s a nomination Shapiro, a rookie showrunner, still can’t believe.
“I was genuinely shocked and bowled over,” she said in an August interview with ET. “We had gotten a tough love talk from our non-writing EP earlier in the week saying, ‘It’s not happening.’ And then my phone started blowing up. To be rewarded for that is insanely validating for the whole team.”
The show, at least on paper, did not have the obvious ingredients of being a clear-cut winner, in part because of the network that it called home. Largely “made on giant leaps of faith,” Lifetime wasn’t Shapiro’s first-choice destination for UnREAL, who was looking more along the lines of an HBO, Netflix or Amazon as potential fits. It was clear, though, that Lifetime was serious about shifting its direction when it came to its scripted dramas, which afforded Shapiro a creative freedom she likely wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere.
“We all felt it was a giant swing. We went to super dangerous places and everybody rearranged their lives to do this,” the 38-year-old said, crediting stars Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer for leading the charge. “To actually have people respond to it is really the reason we all wake up and go to work in the morning.”
UnREAL immediately clicked with a loyal base of viewers after its summer 2015 debut, even though “we were a little bit of an experiment, like Weirdoville,” admitted Shapiro, who kept her home in Portland, Ore., just in case the show failed to resonate. “Someone on our team described it as a punk band paying in a garage. We were by hook or by crook.”
UnREAL’s quick ascent -- it was just one of a handful of shows to win the coveted Peabody Award -- meant more eyes would be on it come season two, which became its own unique challenge. “All of a sudden, we became a big deal at the network, so we had more people invested in the show,” Shapiro said. “While we could push the boundaries, there were a lot more voices [contributing ideas].”
While its first season was universally praised, its most recent run was generally thought to be more divisive. Asked about what her takeaway was for the sophomore season, Shapiro maintained that the outside criticism (and praise) doesn’t affect how she approaches storylines on the show.
“I do think as storytellers, it’s important to ignore that stuff -- the good stuff and the bad stuff,” said Shapiro, who is already knee-deep on season three planning. “I make a point to stay off social media and not get too into those conversations because it feels really important to stay within the story.”
“I feel like our show is such a high-wire act,” she said with a chuckle, specifically referring to UnREAL’s high-octane season two twists and turns. “Everything was high-stakes, treacherous and complicated. It was a really challenging season and sometimes it felt a little bit like extreme sports for writers. It’s tough stuff all the time. I can’t think of a single storyline that it was a cinch, you know?”
One critique was the lack of screen-time shared between the main protagonists, Everlasting TV producers Rachel (Appleby) and Quinn (Zimmer), who spent much of the season on opposite sides and busy exploring their new romances. “It was really important to prove how much they need each other,” Shapiro said. “And even though they’re not a cute name to each other -- they aren’t a couple, they aren’t family -- they are the most important people in each other’s lives and we needed to pull them apart to show that they have to be together.”
Things were left on uncertain ground following a dramatic finale that left Rachel’s ex-lover Coleman (Michael Rady) and Everlasting contestant Yael (Monica Barbaro), aka “Hot Rachel,” dead after a devastating car crash orchestrated by Rachel’s ex Jeremy (Josh Kelly). The upcoming season, expected to debut in 2017, will explore the aftermath of the fatal accident and its effect on all involved, as well as possible returns for Darius (B.J. Britt) and Adam (Freddie Stroma).
“Now, that family is bound together forever. Jeremy went way too far and now, they’re all at the bottom of the well that we’re going to have to climb them out of,” Shapiro teased, who believes Jeremy is “redeemable on some level.” “How do you move on from that? What comes after that?”
“Every time we pitch something in the room where it’s like ‘Whoa, that’s really far’ and ‘That’s really scary,’ that’s the stuff that we know to lean into,” she added.