'UnREAL' Boss on Getting the Show Back on Track in Season 3 After Creative Backlash From Fans (Exclusive)


Showrunner Stacy Rukeyser talks to ET about what went wrong with season two and how they're getting back to what made the Lifetime drama sing.

UnREAL is righting the ship.

It's been 567 days since the provocative Lifetime drama -- about two women pulling the strings behind the scenes of a Bachelor-type dating show, Everlasting -- last aired on TV, and the prolonged hiatus may have been a blessing in disguise. UnREAL made a splash in the summer of 2015, earning critical acclaim and Emmy nominations for its commentary on modern-day feminism and for creating two of strongest female anti-heroes in Shiri Appleby's Rachel and Constance Zimmer's Quinn in recent memory.

The reaction to its divisive second season, however, was less rosy. Crippled by an overabundance of storylines, lack of focus and controversial hot-button issues (see: the Black Lives Matter-inspired police shooting episode), there was a sense that UnREAL had succumbed to the feared sophomore slump. The events of the finale were, in a way, reflective of the rocky season that was: Rachel's ex, Jeremy, kills two characters in a fatal car crash, leaving the fate of Everlasting in limbo. "There were a lot of plot points that we didn’t get to fully sit with," showrunner Stacy Rukeyser tells ET. "That is what we have a great opportunity to do in season three."

The new 10-episode season doesn't undo what went wrong creatively, but instead rectifies mishaps by leaning into the manipulation and bringing the focus squarely back on Rachel and Quinn. Unlike the first two installments, season three sees Rachel and Quinn wrangling a suitress, a beautiful, successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald), who has her own ideas on what needs to be done in order for her to find a husband on Everlasting. Ahead of Monday's season three premiere, Rukeyser sat down with ET to reflect on the lessons she learned from a the problematic sophomore season, how a suitress switches up the game and why Rachel will always side with Quinn, like a moth to a flame.

ET: You’ve said that there was too dramatic of a pendulum swing from the first season to season two in terms of the show’s creative approach. How are we going to see that reconciled in season three?

Stacy Rukeyser: There were a lot of plot points that we didn’t get to fully sit with and have the repercussions for these characters and the emotional effects. That is what we have a great opportunity to do in season three. When we looked at starting this season, I really sat in the hearts and in the souls of Rachel and Quinn. In particular, for Rachel, what she needs to deal with is what Jeremy did at the end of last season and what her own personal responsibility is in that. Did she or did she not produce Jeremy to do that? (In the season two finale, Jeremy causes a fatal car accident that kills Everlasting producer Coleman and contestant Yael, aka “Hot Rachel.”) When Jeremy comes back, he’s gotten sober and he’s gone through anger management, and Rachel does not take responsibility for that. That is a big part her journey for this season. She’s gone off to a goat farm and pledged essential honesty, but she’s not really being honest with herself and she has to unpack why that is -- why she is the way that she is. Quinn hires a real shrink Dr. Simon (played by Brandon Jay McLaren), a “real a** shrink” as we call him, and he helps Rachel go on that journey to look at where her darkness comes from. These are the emotional character arcs that are the essence of this season and the table was set by the plot points that happened at the end of last season.

Shiri Appleby told us last August that she believes season three is “much stronger than it was in the second season.” What specific conversations did you have with Shiri and Constance Zimmer about any concerns they had creatively about season two that you wanted to avoid moving forward?

We didn’t really have creative conversations with them until I had a season to pitch to them, and then they were very excited about what it was that we were going to do. We certainly heard the criticisms and certainly looked at them, but all I can do as a writer is try to write from a truthful place and I couldn’t ignore the plot points that had happened in the second season and pretended that they never happened. I had to write from that place and deal with it in a truthful way, but I also had the opportunity to bring in a female suitress, which really had nothing to do with what we had done in the seasons before. 

What did you want to bring to the conversation by introducing a suitress on Everlasting instead of featuring another suitor?

It’s a real opportunity to talk about gender politics in this country. I feel personally that a smart, strong woman is one of most frightening things to a lot of people in America. When we started writing the season and creating this character, Serena, everybody thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be president so there was a thought of like, “Really, is this still an issue?” But I saw the vitriol that Hillary Clinton experienced on the campaign trail and it became so clear to me that it was a real issue and an interesting one to explore. For me personally, I experienced what Serena experiences in the sense that my career was going really great, I was working my way up the ladder and the further I got, the harder it became to find a guy. That’s what’s happened to Serena, so much so that she’s decides to come on a reality show to try to find a husband -- that’s what it’s come to. It’s a chance to look at why is that, how are women supposed to be. We’re supposed to be “You go girl!” and aggressive at work and demanding more and more for ourselves, and then when we go out on a date, we’re supposed to turn completely into a different person, into a demure, more traditional, feminine type who allows a man to take the [reins]. Serena becomes an avatar for Rachel and Quinn. So much of the reason that Rachel brings Serena in is to prove to Quinn that she is lovable.

It’s one thing to say, “I’m fine on my own. I don’t need any of that because I have my career and my career is going great.” But in order for that to happen, your career really has to be banging and Quinn’s is not at this point. The show is about to be canceled, her career is taking a personal hit and Rachel sees that. She is trying to make a point to Quinn, which is made a little bit more challenging by the fact that Chet has a 24-year-old swimsuit model girlfriend.

How are you using this season to comment on the struggles that many successful working women face in the real world when it comes to finding love? Do you provide an answer by the end of the season or does it remain an ongoing question?

I don’t know that we provide an answer. I think that the answer is it’s challenging and it’s complicated. Feminism is complicated; who we are supposed to be as women these days is complicated. It’s not just about how should we be so that men like us, it’s also what kind of a man do we want to have? Part of what Serena has to figure out is does she want the alpha male who would be a person just like her and they would be a power couple or is it better for someone like her to be with a more beta guy who will let her be the star? What is the right choice in this day and age when so many more women are the primary breadwinners in the family? Just talking about those issues and telling those stories is new and revolutionary and a conversation we should be having.

UnREAL has always been about the different relationships between the women on the show: Rachel and Quinn, the female contestants on Everlasting. With a suitress now front and center with male contestants, how has that shifted the focus in that department?

That was a big part of the show. One of the big thematic things that we talk about is how toxic these shows really are -- how they pit the women against each other and how we as an audience get off on that. It also looked at the princess fantasy: All of these women are competing for a man, the man is the prize and you need to be skinny and look good in the hot tub, not talk too much about work, be desirable and not mind that he’s dating 20 other women at the same time as you. And he should, in exchange, pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner -- and that’s what romance look like. It’s true that we don’t have that [this season] and the men are, to a certain extent, harder to produce. It looks at it through a different frame: What do these men think about Serena and what do they think about having to compete for her affections? Why are they there? Who is sincere and who is not? And how humiliating is it, on some level, for a woman to feel like this is her best option of finding a husband?

Season 3 of 'UnREAL' centers on 'Everlasting's' first female suitor, Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald, far right), a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. - Lifetime

At the start of the new season, many of the characters, especially Rachel, find themselves in completely different places, whether it be professionally or personally -- a rebirth of sorts. What challenges face them as they try to stay on a path that they're not as well-equipped to stay on?

For Rachel, it's very hard to be essentially honest because your job, by definition is to produce people which, in our world, means lie to them, manipulate them, get them to tell the story that you want. Rachel comes back thinking, nope, I'm going to do this job but I'm going to stay essential honest but by episode three or four, she is faced with a situation where it's Serena or Quinn. And any day of the week, she's going to choose Quinn over anyone else. 

Even after all the stunts Quinn has pulled?

Quinn and Rachel are the central love story of the series. You could also say it's a co-dependent relationship, but they are drawn to each other. For Rachel, the struggle is can she do her job and be honest? That will prove impossible. How will she deal with that? At the same time that she's going on this journey with Dr. Simon to unravel her past and why it makes her feel good to do the things that she does, she has to understand all of that. Quinn is going to do everything it takes to get her career back and her show back and her empire, in that she wants to be Shonda [Rhimes]. Chet has to come to terms with whether "easy" is really what he wants and if that is satisfying at the end of the day.

Speaking of Quinn, Madison seems to have her eye on becoming Quinn 2.0 and sleeping her way to the top. Is that Madison's trajectory this season?

Madison is very ambitious and she's always looking for a way to get to the front of the line. She believes sleeping her way to the top is the way to do that. What's cool, you'll see, is when Quinn finds out about what she's doing and what her reaction is. One of the things that is really important to us -- the stereotype is that women don't support each other at work and it's cutthroat -- we have a twist on that that's really interesting to me. I believe that Quinn really loves Rachel, that even Rachel is doing these challenging things that there's a reason for it, at least Quinn believes, but that at the soul level, she loves Rachel. Now here's another female producer coming along and it's interesting to see what she does with Madison.

Jeremy's arc has been perhaps the most interesting one to follow since season one and it's fair to say the character has been put through his paces. Are you viewing season three as a rehabilitation of the character?

I don't know that I necessarily thought of it as a rehabilitation season, but I do know that in terms of what Rachel has to deal with in getting honest and straight with herself, Jeremy was essential to that story because he's the only person who can be there to say, "You told me to do this." He has gotten sucked into this world even more so because he's in love with Rachel and to his lowest point, which is the end of season two, where he, because he thought he was saving her and because he thought she was asking him to, he killed two people. He has to come to terms with that. He's never going to be able to forget that. He is going to have to live with himself. He needed to be there as a tough reminder to Rachel that she can't get away with what she is saying is the truth now.

From the first two episodes, Serena is proving to be a suitress with her own plan and agenda. How are Rachel and Quinn navigating 

It's really important to Rachel that Serena is the feminist suitress. She's making a statement but not having a demure kindergarten teacher. The fact that this is a strong career woman makes a statement to Rachel. Quinn could not care about that kind of stuff. She wants a great season, she wants great ratings. Serena is insecure enough about being single in her 30s to be vulnerable when things don't go her way and the men aren't as immediately taken with her as she'd hoped. She goes down the road that Chet takes her own, in terms of saying, "This is how a woman should be," and that's horrifying for Rachel -- and Quinn, to a certain level. In the early part of the season, it's much more a battle between Rachel and Chet over which version of a woman Serena should be and if she should be her true self, which is strong and smart. Rachel develops a real personal relationship with the suitress and doesn't want to push her to do certain things and truly wants her to find the right person. She's more unwilling to do things to Serena than normal and more unwilling to do the things that Quinn wants her to do to get the story and the ratings.

The season also toys with the future of Everlasting and the fact that it is on the verge of cancellation. Have you seriously toyed with the idea of having UnREAL without Everlasting?

(Laughs.) People talk about that. Everything is up for discussion. The point about Everlasting possibly being canceled... I felt that when a contestant and a producer are in a car crash at the end of a season, that it would at least be put on hiatus for six months and maybe not come back. I do think that talking about relationships and men and women has been such a part of the fabric of UnREAL since the beginning, but look, at its heart it's a story about Quinn and Rachel. And wherever Quinn and Rachel go...

So it doesn't exactly matter if Everlasting is the show within UnREAL, as long as they're somehow involved.

Yeah, sure. It could be anything! But I also feel like there are many seasons left in the Everlasting format. Until men and women figure it out in the real world, we'll have stories to tell. (Laughs.)

Season four is already in the can and you're just now launching season three. How strange has it been to go back to stuff you filmed over a year ago? Did you view it as a gift to film back-to-back seasons without audience reaction?

I definitely viewed it as a gift and a real vote of confidence. Season three was my first as the showrunner so for Lifetime to like it so much to pick the show up for a fourth season before they even saw how the critics felt or how the ratings were was phenomenal. The only hard part for us that we were so excited about the season we shot that we wanted people to see it. It's true, we didn't get to see how people were responding to how Rachel and Quinn were, but we had ideas that were exciting to us [for season four] that didn't have anything to do with season three. It's a whole new game of stories we wanted to tell.

UnREAL premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.