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UnREAL and the Arrival of the Totally Dark, Utterly Irresistible Female Anti-Hero

12 minute read

The first time we see Rachel, the protagonist of Lifetime’s new show UnREAL, she is lying on the floor of a limousine nestled among the stilettos of group of women about to compete for a man’s heart on a Bachelor-like reality dating show called Everlasting. She is wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. Within minutes of that shot Rachel, a producer on Everlasting, is plying these women with alcohol and preying on their insecurities in order to elicit the sort of breakdown that qualifies as “must see TV.”

If she manages to coax tears or screams out of the ladies, she earns a cash bonus from her boss, Quinn, who is busy in the control room labeling the show’s contestants “wifey” or “slut.” By Monday’s finale of UnREAL’s first season, the two producers will be at least in part responsible for several public humiliations, a sexual assault and even a death.

The show has broken ground by simultaneously skewering a genre that pits women against women and upending the prince myth with a selfish dolt. But perhaps most revolutionary of all, it offers a manipulative female lead who’s not just a villainous foil, but the central protagonist. Rachel is not a victim turned bad. She’s just a woman who is frighteningly good at her exploitative job.

“There are other examples of female anti-heroes on TV,” says the show’s co-creator, Marti Noxon, whose long resume as a producer includes Buffy, Mad Men and Grey’s Anatomy. “But we wanted to push it to the limits and say, ‘That’s not despicable enough.’”

Rachel and Quinn’s predecessors—Nancy Botwin from Weeds, Ellen Parsons from Damages and Piper Chapman from Orange Is the New Black—were all likable women when we first met them. But unfortunate circumstances—the death of a partner or imprisonment—revealed their true, selfish and much more interesting characters. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, we watched their evolution from victim towards evil. Not so for Rachel and Quinn, who much more closely mirror Don Draper and Tony Soprano—men who were deemed “bad” or “difficult” from their pilot episodes.

“We threw the idea of likability out before we even began,” says co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a self-described feminist who worked as a producer on The Bachelor for seven years before threatening self harm in order to be released from her contract with the show. “We don’t subscribe to the idea of likability because we don’t think it’s applied to men.”

But writing female anti-heroes is more complicated than turning Don Draper into Donna or Tony Soprano into Tonya. Perhaps more important than the characters are the conflicts they face, and those of UnREAL are uniquely tailored to the modern woman. The problem is stated outright on Rachel’s shirt in the first episode—a bold move in the era of “sneaky feminism” on TV shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City. Rachel believes in high-minded principles, but as Shapiro felt herself while working on The Bachelor, she’s had to sacrifice them for the sake of money and the future of her career. As women still grapple with whether to prioritize ambition over likability, it’s liberating for a female audience to watch a character who doesn’t even try to be nice.

These new anti-heroes made their debut on Lifetime, long branded as the gauzy “women’s network” and best known for its overdramatic movies featuring victimized women in various states of distress. The creators were initially hesitant to partner with Lifetime on a show that could have easily been at home on HBO or Netflix. But in an effort to rebrand, executives offered Shapiro and Noxon carte blanche to write the darkest, most complex story they could.

“Lifetime wants to redefine what ‘television for women’ means,” says Noxon. “The most popular shows among female viewers are all dark: things like Sons of Anarchy, True Blood and Breaking Bad. The executives suspected rightly that there would be an appetite for females who were behaving despicably as well.”

This Is What A Feminist Anti-Hero Looks Like

The Rachel and Quinn dynamic is not a new one to media. The Devil Wears Prada or Damages relationship between cold mentor and naive mentee has cemented itself in pop culture. Amy Schumer’s recent rom-com, Trainwreck, even parodied the “bitchy boss.” But Shapiro and Noxon hoped to complicate that connection.

“For Quinn, a really easy place to go with the character is Disney evil queen—older, bitchy, arch, mean, kind of jealous. It could read that way on the page, and a ton of people we saw did that. But it was wrong,” says Shapiro. “Constance [Zimmer] inhabits that character in a way that has so much humanity and humor underneath that we don’t necessarily forgive her, but we understand her.”

She’s had practice: Zimmer has built a career playing tough women in supporting roles on shows like Entourage, House of Cards and The Newsroom. But all that experience hasn’t alleviated the fear that people will associate her with her characters’ cruelty. “I was so terrified to play Quinn in the first couple of episodes,” says Zimmer. “When they say cut, I’m apologizing to everyone around me, all the extras. I want to make sure everyone knows I’m not like Quinn. I’m super goofy and silly.” The creators may have thrown out the term “likable” from their script, but in the real world, the expectation that women be genial persists.

Still Zimmer recognized the opportunity to build a character arc for the kind of caricatured woman who usually only gets a couple biting lines. “I like playing strong women, but this is different because with the other characters, we never went home with them. With Quinn, we get to see how insecure she is, how she has her own struggles and see that she’s just much better than others at putting on armor,” she says.

Rachel, too, defies the typical female character genres—and even the typical female anti-hero. She is a master of manipulation, and even the actor who plays her, Shiri Appleby, was sometimes confused as to whether Rachel was being genuine or calculating when she uttered her lines.

“She’s a character that doesn’t really have a lot of friends or anyone to talk to about her emotions. You don’t see her express herself, you just see her actions, which is rare for a female character,” says Appleby. It’s the sort of mystery more often seen in male characters like Don Draper.

And conflicts between her ambition and her ethics come to a head in a way rarely seen on screen. Shapiro compares Rachel’s life to a more realistic Devil Wears Prada, where the protege (played by Anne Hathaway in the film) can’t get out from under her cruel mentor’s thumb.

“A moment that comes up a lot in the writers’ room is the end of Devil Wears Prada. We always joke about the end of the movie where Anne Hathaway’s character throws her phone into the fountain and leaves the miserable job. In the UnREAL version of that scene, she would be grabbing the phone out of that fountain, putting it in a bag of rice until it dries out and texting her boss asking for her job back,” says Shapiro.

Somewhere along the way, the mentee became an expert and Rachel began taking pride in her ability to cleverly tear others down. Like Tony and Don and Walter, she’s good at doing something poisonous.

The Girls’ Club

Noxon says that with UnREAL she has entered a small community of female television producers, which includes her sister-in-law and creator of Weeds and Orange Is the New Black Jenji Kohan, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and Transparent creator Jill Soloway, among others. “Everyone talks about the boys’ club—there’s starting to be a little bit of a girls’ club too,” says Noxon. “We can call each other for support.”

With rave reviews from critics, UnREAL has taken its place in a small but growing pantheon of shows created by women about women who are as complicated and conflicted as men have always been on TV.

“My mom was a card-carrying feminist lesbian. She literally told me shaving my legs was giving in to the patriarchy,” Noxon says. “I think the idea that feminists have to be strident really turns people off. There were all these rules to being a good feminist, when the truth is, we’re just as conflicted as anybody else.”

Shiri Appleby has had some experience with conflicted women. Before she played Rachel, she guest-starred as the girlfriend of Adam (Adam Driver) on Girls, a show that’s taken plenty of flack for featuring unlikable female characters—though Lena Dunham’s Hannah has probably never reached the level of true anti-hero.

Appleby draws parallels between Dunham’s methods and those of UnREAL writer Shapiro. “They both write about women in a way that isn’t pretty their work is considered groundbreaking,” says Appleby. “Neither of them want to please people. If anything, they want to make the audience uncomfortable and question their values and morals by telling these real stories about women.”

But even though Appleby recognized how rare it was to be cast in projects with a woman’s voice on television, that didn’t prepare her for the fan response. “I didn’t think any of the things we shot on UnREAL were going to be controversial. But then I go online and I see there are these articles and discussions about the episode that begins and ends with Rachel masturbating. That’s fascinating because, like, women use vibrators. They just do. But because TV shows only talk about the way men please themselves, it’s a big deal.”

It’s an evolution that comes thanks to disruptors like Hulu and Netflix, which are challenging channels to reach outside their comfort zone by commissioning original series that break away from TV norms. Lifetime is not alone in its effort to enter the race for best prestige drama. This summer, USA Network—defined by dramatic but ultimately sunny serials like Suits, Burn Notice and Psych—offered Sam Esmail the opportunity to turn his strange, edgy movie script about an anti-social, drug addicted vigilante hacker called Mr. Robot into a TV show that critics are now calling one of the best of the year. And last year, the CW took a risk on a critically-acclaimed telenovela spoof Jane the Virgin that earned the network its first Golden Globe for star Gina Rodriguez.

Though these shows may not earn Big Bang Theory ratings, neither did Mad Men. The people tuning into these high level dramas are generally doing so via DVR or streaming services like Netflix or Amazon. Not only do the shows earn cachet for the Networks, but they up their value with these streaming service providers as more households cut their cable TV cords.

“I couldn’t have gotten this show made five years ago,” says Noxon. “Now television is so targeted. You’re not going for Grey’s Anatomy numbers. You’re doing for a specific demographic.”

And although networks may long for shows that can bring in 10 million viewers as Rhimes does for ABC, small, targeted shows can have a massive impact on the culture. The Girls finale drew fewer than 1 million watchers, but the show launched Lena Dunham’s book to the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a thousand think pieces. Netflix doesn’t release how many people tune in to Orange Is the New Black, but one of its stars, Laverne Cox, has made a national impact, landing on the cover of TIME as a leader of the trans movement.

How UnREAL might change television has yet to be seen—though it’s clearly already gotten under the skin of Chris Harrison, longtime Bachelor host. But while it’s unlikely that the grim Lifetime show has convinced longtime reality TV devotees to defect, Noxon and Shapiro have proven that there’s room for both the bright-eyed contestants of The Bachelor and the scheming producers of UnREAL on TV. When conducting research for UnREAL, the creators found that the women who tune in to reality romances have an average income of $150,000. Many members of the largely female audience work 90 hour weeks and hold advanced degrees.

These career women sometimes like to indulge in the Prince Charming fantasy—and sometimes they want to watch it torn down. Female viewers deserve characters that are just as complicated and contradictory as they are themselves. Those characters have finally arrived.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com