When we meet the beleaguered Rachel (Shiri Appleby) in the debut season of Lifetime’s UnREAL, she’s coaxing gown-clad women into catfights for a Bachelor-like reality show while wearing a This is what a feminist looks like T-shirt. Her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) watches from a control room where she labels contestants “wifey” or “slut.” But by the premiere of the second season, Rachel has dropped any qualms she once had about manipulating other women. When she gets a contestant to make a tearful on-camera confession, Rachel proclaims, “I feel like God.” She and Quinn even get matching tattoos that read: Money. Dick. Power.
As it skewers a genre that pits women against one another, UnREAL offers complex female characters who, in behaving badly, stand toe-to-toe with men like Walter White. “There are other examples of female antiheroes,” says show co-creator Marti Noxon. “We wanted to push it to the limit and say, ‘That’s not despicable enough.'”
Rachel’s predecessors–Weeds’ Nancy Botwin, Damages’ Ellen Parsons, Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman–start out likable, but adversity reveals their true, selfish natures. Rachel’s arc more closely mirrors those of Don Draper and Tony Soprano: “bad” from the pilot. Quinn too defies stereotypes: more than just the “bitchy boss,” she exhibits enough humor and pathos for the audience to sympathize even as it recoils from her cruelty. It’s a stark contrast to the real Bachelor franchise, where contestants are starkly defined as “good” (read: chaste) or bad. Women have complained that its producers reward male promiscuity while punishing female friskiness. If UnREAL can unravel that double standard via satire, Noxon and her team will be well satisfied.
It’s remarkable that this effort to upend gender norms is happening on Lifetime, best known for movies featuring women in various states of distress. “The most popular shows among female viewers are all dark: Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Breaking Bad,” says Noxon. “The executives suspected rightly that there would be an appetite for females who were behaving despicably as well.” The award-winning UnREAL is the grimmest show about women yet to come from a growing community of female showrunners, including Noxon’s sister-in-law Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Shonda Rhimes (Scandal) and Jill Soloway (Transparent), among others. “Everyone talks about the boys’ club,” she says. “There’s starting to be a girls’ club too.”
This appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of TIME.