The idea first came to creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro when she was filming the first season of the Lifetime hit, which follows the behind-the-scenes production of a reality dating show. Although Gertrude Shapiro also considered going the Bachelorette route for Season 2, she ultimately decided to keep the male suitor format, but put a greater emphasis on race. In its second season,UnREAL is doing what The Bachelor has yet to accomplish in 20 seasons: introduce a black suitor.
“I felt strongly that a black suitor would be a little bit more interesting on a few levels. And it especially felt like a more important thing to do with the platform that we had,” Gertrude Shapiro tells TVGuide.com.
The new suitor, Darius (B.J. Britt), is an NFL star looking to rehabilitate his public image after an unflattering video of him goes public. He has little interest in finding love or in the political significance of being the first black suitor when he arrives at the Everlasting mansion, which particularly rubs one contest, a black activist named Ruby (Denée Benton), the wrong way.
But while Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) are attempting to make history with Darius, they’re also forced into a tough situation by Chet (Craig Bierko), who spent the hiatus becoming a men’s rights activist.
Chet returns to the set having undergone a complete physical and mental transformation. 50 pounds lighter, sober and free from all “p—ydom,” Chet is on a mission to reclaim his kingdom from women. He has no trouble recruiting Jeremy (Josh Kelly) to his cause since Jeremy’s breakup with Rachel leads him to seemingly blame women for everything that’s gone wrong with in life.
To find out why UnREAL decided to double-down on race and gender politics in Season 2 and what this means for the show going forward, check out our interview with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro below.
What are the challenges to making a season about race as a white woman and how did you go about addressing those?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: The challenges are very real. I was really scared to do it. I came into the writers’ room and sort of said to the group, “This is what I’m thinking. This is what I’d like to do this season.” And there are two women of color who write on the show and I specifically was asking them what their thoughts were about it. I think it’s really scary and it has the potential to very awkward, but what we landed on and what I felt was that it’s better to do it than to not do it.
The first two weeks of the writers’ room was basically just to talk about race and personal experiences with it, mainly listening to the people of color in the room talk about their experiences. And we built a lot of the season around that and gave all people of color, both on the writing staff and the cast, once we cast the show, final veto power if anything felt off in a script. So opening up all the scenes and dialogue and making sure everybody felt pretty good about the stories we were telling.
Why you need to binge UnREAL right now
Specifically, the person who plays Jay, Jeffrey Boyer-Chapman, he and I have a really close relationship, so we had a lot of dialogue about what we were doing and still do to this day. The other day I was up there in Vancouver and said something about it like, “I just still don’t know if I should have done it.” And he goes, “Oh my god. Allies are so important.” He’s glad that we’re doing it and glad that we did it. So yeah, I think we did the best we could and listened a lot and learned as much as we could about what we’re writing about.
Jay is put in this uncomfortable position this season where he’s torn between his obligations as a producer and his obligations as a black man. How does that play out across the season?
Gertrude Shapiro: It’s Jay’s central struggle for the season and he really has a problem with how Rachel is handling this whole thing. And I think that was a layer that was important to put into the show, which was sort of a white liberal woman patting herself on the back for having made history by casting the first black suitor and how that totally overlooks what’s actually good for this black suitor. It’s also the idea that Rachel’s taking credit for it and it’s not her story to tell. I think that Jay is pretty pissed about it the whole season and it works itself to a breaking point around Episode 7.
How much of the characters’ reactions and discussions about having a black suitor are inspired by discussions about race you witnessed in real life?
Gertrude Shapiro: I’ve had a bunch of day jobs. The Bachelor was a day job I had when I was 22. I worked in advertising and fashion and all different parts of the industry. Those conversations [in the show], none of them are lifted from real life in terms of verbatim, but I don’t think they’re that much of a stretch. They feel pretty grounded in reality to me.
Last season, Chet was a jerk, but he was also sort of this bumbling buffoon. Now, he’s become a men’s right’s activist and is really targeting Rachel and Quinn. What inspired you to take Chet in this direction?
Gertrude Shapiro: It was a couple things. The first thing was when the actor, Craig Bierko, called me and said he wanted to lose 50 pounds and he was worried that it was going to ruin his character. And I just said he should go for it because he’s a human being that deserves to feel good if that’s what he wants to do. I was like, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll write it in.” And then I started thinking about it and I just loved it as an angle. The idea that Chet would go through this rebirth after having been so humiliated in front of everyone, and really realizing that he needs to clean up his act. So that was the initial inspiration to look into it. And then what I loved about the idea is that we’ve really been labeled as a feminist show, and I thought it was super unexpected to come and tackle the men’s rights movement. I just thought it was really fun and interesting for us to play with.
How do you imagine viewers will respond to both Chet and Jeremy’s change in attitude?
Gertrude Shapiro: I don’t actually know how people are going to react. I try to understand what the characters need and want, and I think that both Chet and Jeremy feel pretty authentic to me in terms of what guys need and want when they’re heartbroken and feel like sh– about themselves. So I think there’s a lot to relate to in men feeling disempowered and confused because they’re supposed to be these Prince Charmings, but also supposed to be feminist, and they don’t know what to do and they can’t figure out who to be. All that stuff from the guys feels pretty relatable, but I don’t know if people will hate or them or relate to them or what. I’m super curious to find out.
This season is focused a lot on race and gender politics, but Rachel’s new love interest is Jewish and there’s a new Jewish contestant, Hot Rachel. Do you ever imagine the show tackling questions about Rachel’s relationship to Judaism and that aspect of her identity?
Gertrude Shapiro: I’ve thought about. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there. I think it’s interesting. Again, it was just one of those things that was sort of effortless and part of the character when I pitched the show — that she’s a Jewy girl who went to a good school. Again, really familiar to me and my life. I don’t know that we’ll go towards Rachel’s Judaism. Maybe in Season 5.
People have been questioning Rachel’s mental stability since the pilot, but we haven’t gotten a real resolution to those yet. How will the questions play out this season?
Gertrude Shapiro: You will get some answers. We’ve talked about really answering the question, “Is Rachel crazy?” in this season and we go there.
UnREAL premieres Monday at 10/9c on Lifetime.