Stacy Rukeyser, who took on the showrunner mantle for UnREAL this season, tells TV Drama about how she runs her writers’ room and offers a glimpse at the already ordered fourth season.
UnREAL, the Lifetime drama that chronicles the machinations behind a Bachelor-style dating show, returns to screens this month after a long break. Its protagonists, Rachel and Quinn, are on a mission to turn around ratings at the fictional Everlasting reality show, which this time features its first bachelorette, Serena, a successful tech entrepreneur who really does want to find a husband.
TV DRAMA: What was your vision for season three?
RUKEYSER: In season two there had been a lot of big plot points, but we hadn’t had the chance to explore the consequences of those things in a meaningful way. I didn’t want to ignore the things that had happened; I wanted to sit in the hearts and minds of Rachel and Quinn and take the time to deal with the aftereffects emotionally and psychologically. That is a lot of what we do this season. For example, Rachel reveals toward the end of season two that she had been raped by one of her mother’s patients when she was 12 years old. That’s a lot to unpack. This season, Quinn has brought along what we call a “real ass shrink,” Dr. Simon, for Rachel. At the end of last season, Rachel had a mental breakdown. She either produced Jeremy into killing two people or, if she didn’t, what is her responsibility in terms of what Jeremy did? Quinn has brought this shrink in to be a safety net for Rachel. He takes her on this journey where she has to come to terms with what her responsibility was. And even further, to look at where the darkness within her came from. That is something that thematically we’ve been looking at since season one.
TV DRAMA: How do you run your writers’ room so that you can grapple with those themes and the incredibly complex relationship between Rachel and Quinn?
RUKEYSER: We start with the Rachel and Quinn story. We look at the season-long arc for Rachel, for Quinn and what she’s dealing with—which is complicated by Chet and his 24-year-old swimsuit model girlfriend—and Serena and the themes of gender politics that we were interested in exploring with her character. But then you have to break the Everlasting story too. The guys and the power plays and the machinations in terms of what they want from Serena, or what the producers are trying to get them to get from Serena. You start from that deeper, more emotional psychological place and then little by little, now you’ve got an Everlasting story, now you’ve got these crazy characters, now you’ve got these intense situations, then the fun and the zingers and the one-liners come too. It’s a fun writers’ room because you get to deal with all of that. It’s sort of like this poisoned cupcake, you’re talking about the frosting and the sprinkles, but you’ve also got these deeper, darker things that are happening on the inside.
TV DRAMA: Why did you decide to have a suitress this season who is an accomplished woman in her own right?
RUKEYSER: The story was personal to both [co-creator] Sarah Shapiro and to me. I was 37 when I met my husband. My career was going well, but I had thought, maybe it’s not going to happen for me. I’m probably not going to get married, I’m probably not going to have kids, and that’s OK because my career is thriving. That’s the position Quinn finds herself in. I know how frustrating and painful that felt to me. So that was an interesting thing to explore with Serena. And to take it a step further. How are we supposed to be as women? We are encouraged [in the workplace]—“You go, girl! Demand equal pay! Reclaim your time! You can get a seat at the table! Lean in!” But then when you go on a date, you’re expected to magically transform into this other creature who is much more demure. That’s maddening, and also very confusing. That’s what Serena is dealing with too. She has come on this show to find a husband. She’s tried everything else and it hasn’t worked. She honestly believes that maybe this is the way. She’ll have 20 highly curated blind dates. Even if one of these guys isn’t the one, every man in America will know who she is. It makes sense—she’s from Silicon Valley. [Being on the show] is a great way to maximize her deal flow! But what she doesn’t count on is the sausage factory that the show is. And how [the producers] can manipulate or edit people how they want to. And she succumbs to a lot of that too.
TV DRAMA: I know season three wrapped a while ago. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, have you shifted any of your storylines?
RUKEYSER: This season was in the can, completely edited, by last August. In fact, the only thing we opened it up to change was a Charlie Rose joke! It was not at all about sex or harassment. There’s still a Charlie Rose joke in there, but we had to add to it a little bit to make it reflect the current state of Charlie Rose. [The veteran journalist was axed by PBS following sexual harassment allegations.] These issues that are coming up with #MeToo, women have been dealing with them forever. We’re fortunate as writers to be able to have the opportunity to talk about them with this show.
TV DRAMA: Tell me about your approach to mentorship.
RUKEYSER: I’ve had some great examples of showrunners. My very first was Ed Redlich on Without a Trace. He believed in the school where all writers—including me, the little staff writer—would produce episodes, which meant I was on set and I was in the editing room. This was back in the day when there was a real apprenticeship. You learned all the steps of making a TV show so that by the time you got to create and run your own show, you knew what you were doing. Glen Mazzara is another mentor to me who has been incredible. Glen reads more spec scripts from young writers, diverse writers, female writers, than anyone I know. It’s all about hiring people. You can give advice, you can even give notes on a script, but you need to give people opportunities.
I try to set a good example. I have a lot of phone calls and coffees and lunches with aspiring writers. And we have a very extensive list of female directors that goes beyond the standard list that existed with the studios and the networks. And that list is expanding even more now as we’ve been having more of these conversations. It’s also important how you speak about female directors. When men are “strong-willed” or they have a “strong vision,” or they are “demanding,” those are seen as positive things. Women who are doing the same thing can be described as “emotional,” “irrational,” “difficult,” “bitchy,” “hard to get along with.” It’s really important that we just change the way we talk about people and make sure we don’t have our own gender bias when we’re doing that.
TV DRAMA: Lifetime has already ordered a fourth season. What can you tell us about it?
RUKEYSER: It’s Everlasting All-Stars, so certain people are coming back. I don’t watch The Bachelor, but there were a couple of things that happened that came into the cultural conversation. One of them was what happened on Bachelor in Paradise when a producer made a complaint to the studio. That show has been on for a long time, and no one has ever made a complaint. So the fact that they did, that they even got the phone number for the studio (oftentimes when you’re working on a crew, you don’t know who to call), this whole issue about the contestants being drunk and the sex that happened and if she was too drunk to consent and should they have stepped in and done something—that was all fascinating to me and was a bit of an inspiration for season four.
TV DRAMA: Do you think the role of a showrunner has evolved over the years?
RUKEYSER: I don’t think it’s different now. There are people creating shows who don’t have a lot of experience in television. They come from the feature world or they made a short or they wrote a book. But the showrunner, that role has been pretty consistent. If you ask my 6-year-old what it means, he’ll tell you, “She’s the boss!” That is true. Everything rests on you at the end of the day. The writing decisions, the editing decisions, the production decisions, wardrobe, sets, everything. But you have to create a good working environment for everyone. When I watch the dailies and I see a wardrobe that looks great, I call and tell the costume designer. Or I tell the actors their performance was great. I let the actors feel heard when they have script concerns. I let the writers feel heard when they have stuff they want to bring up in the room. Making television is such a collaborative experience. It is important to me that everybody feels ownership of what we’re doing and that they have a great time doing it. In the midst of #MeToo, there was a particularly bad week for showrunners [with several being accused of harassment]. I went up to Vancouver for the table read and said how important it was to me that everyone feels safe on this show. I know what it’s like to not feel that way on a show, so I made sure that when I got the chance and it was my show, it would be a good experience for people. I know great showrunners who do the same thing and I hope there are more and more of them.