September 23, 2019

Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro Keeps ‘UnREAL’ Relevant

Now entering its third season on Lifetime, the critically acclaimed series “UnREAL” peels back the curtain on the behind-the-scenes drama at a reality dating show called “Everlasting” and the women who produce it. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who created it with Marti Noxon, based it on her experiences as a producer on “The Bachelor” from 2002-04.

“It was a time in my life that was full of conflict, and that was because I was a feminist working on ‘The Bachelor.’ It was a really rich time to mine,” Shapiro told the Journal. She emphasized that the show is “100 percent fiction” in terms of story, but its characters and themes couldn’t be more relevant.

“When I pitched the show, the premise was a feminist working on a ‘Bachelor’-type show named Rachel Goldberg has a nervous breakdown over the job she’s doing, and the battle for her soul,” she said. “We’re still tracking Rachel’s moral quandary: She’s trying not to lie but can’t do her job without lying. The idea of somebody trying to cling to honesty in this post-truth Trump era we’re in where facts don’t matter anymore was fascinating to me.”

“The idea of somebody trying to cling to honesty in this post-truth Trump era where facts don’t matter anymore was fascinating to me.” — Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

After two seasons of male suitors, “suitress” Serena, a high-powered, successful tech mogul, is in the choosing position, which enables provocative exploration of gender politics. “The more successful you get, the harder it is to find a partner. That resonated with us and felt like an important thing to talk about,” Shapiro said. “And the idea that every smart, ambitious woman has been told at some point to dumb herself down around men and the dehumanization of that was so interesting to explore.”

Shapiro pointed out that the season was written and shot long before the sexual abuse allegations and the rise of movements such as Me Too and Time’s Up. In fact, “We were writing the season before the [2016] election, and our assumption was that Hillary Clinton would be the next president,” Shapiro said. “We’d had some conversations with the network about whether this stuff would still be relevant after the election.”

While the world of “Everlasting” is fairly toxic, Shapiro emphasized that the working environment at “UnREAL” is “very, very different. There’s a lot of respect for each other in our creative process. It’s a show run by women, written by women who love and respect each other.”

Their own lives often inspire stories, she noted. She sees a lot of herself in Rachel.

“Rachel Goldberg’s name and having her be Jewish was important to me,” Shapiro said. “I felt that her world was a world that I understood and knew. She was raised with the same Jewish ethics that I was — it’s about being honest and being a mensch and being a hard worker, and they’re always being challenged. She feels terrible for being a liar but she’s also a hardworking overachiever so she’s getting a gold star at a job that she hates.”

A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., Shapiro, 40, describes her Jewish upbringing as “pretty secular. My mom was raised Methodist and sort of pseudo-converted. My dad remarried when I was 13, to a Jewish woman; they’re conservative and observant. I always felt a huge connection to the Jewish side of my family and, through that marriage, I’ve had an opportunity to be more involved in their synagogue and to find one of my own here in L.A.”

In June 2017, she married writer-director Jacinto Aganza at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, and their son Moshe Ixchel, whose names reflect Shapiro’s Jewish heritage and Aganza’s Mexican and indigenous ancestry, was born in October. They are raising him Jewish.

Shapiro, who won an Emmy for outstanding writing in a drama series in 2016 for “UnREAL,” knew early on that she wanted to be a writer. She added directing to that ambition after she took a film studies class at the local city college at age 16. She got her bachelor’s degree in fiction writing and filmmaking from Sarah Lawrence College and made her directorial debut in 2013 with the short film “Sequin Raze.”

In addition to writing, producing and show-running “UnREAL,” Shapiro also directed one episode this season. “To be able to direct a show I created, a world that I understand and know, was like being a kid in a candy shop,” she said.

She’s currently writing a feature film script for Amazon about Yazidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS, held as sex slaves, escaped and formed a battalion to seek revenge on their rapists. She plans to direct as well, but the project’s timing depends on whether there will be a fifth season of “UnREAL.”

The show’s fourth season already is shot and is in the editing stage. Shapiro described it as an “all-star” season with men and women from previous seasons returning.

The current season will end with “a bit of a cliffhanger” and on “an emotionally satisfying note,” she said. And the characters’ messed-up, complicated lives notwithstanding, she believes that “there are happy endings possible for these people. It’s important to give them some wins.”

“UnReal” premieres Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.