Last summer, Lifetime was in the midst of rebranding. Their classic, romantic melodramas were being pushed to sister station Hallmark while Lifetime focused on millennial viewers through unauthorized TV movies based on the behind-the-scenes drama of 90s sitcoms, and dark comedies that mocked their old brand. While younger viewers slowly moved over, critics pay too much attention. That is until the premiere of UnREAL. The dark comedy starring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer solidified Lifetime’s place as a network to be reckoned with. For anyone who had previously thought of Lifetime as the “victim channel,” UnREAL proved that “victim” is not something to be mocked, but a real problem in a culture that routinely bullies women for their looks, actions, and everything in between.
The show was created by Marti Noxon, who is best known for her work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Girlfriend’s Guide To Divorce, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose short film Sequin Raze the series is based. The first season may have centered on how pop culture portrays women, but in order to make it compelling, the female contestants that each appeared briefly had to be complex to truly depict how brutal the producers of the show-within-a-show are.
For the break down, we’re looking at episode six in season one, “Fly”. This is a major episode in the show in that it pushed the emotional drama over the top and forced Quinn and Rachel to actually shift out of dark humor and into 100% drama. If anyone was still questioning this show as soapy fun, this episode made them reconsider. Let’s get to the break down.
Rachel, Producer on Everlasting and the second in command. Had a previous mental breakdown and is spending her first season back on the show proving her worth again to her mentor, Quinn.
Quinn, Showrunner of Everlasting and Rachel’s surrogate mother. Has an on-again/off-again relationship with Chet.
Chet, executive producer and Quinn’s business partner. He’s a bit of a frat-bro/jack-ass.
Jeremy, camera operator on the show and former boyfriend of Rachel.
Mary, featured contestant in the episode.
Anna, frontrunner contestant on Everlasting.
Shia, lower-level producer on the show.
Adam, featured bachelor throughout the season of Everlasting.
A-Story: Rachel wants to win the bet for Rachel, proving she can do the job and be a feminist, making an impact on their audience.
B-Story: Quinn wants to prove to Chet he’s unimportant by winning the bet (via Rachel) and landing the network pitch without him. Chet wants to prove that Quinn needs him.
C-Story: Shia is insecure about her job and needs Mary to stay on the show.
D-Story: Jeremy wants to make things right with his girlfriend.
D: Jeremy and his girlfriend have sex but it is halted when he gets too rough with her.
B: Watching footage, Chet insults older contestant Mary’s, upsetting Quinn who is a year older.
B: Quinn believes that Mary can win the show if they put their energy behind her. Chet disagrees. Rachel fights for Mary. They make a bet: girls win if Mary makes it through the end of the week, if not, Chet wins.
A: Quinn puts Rachel in charge of co-producing Mary, stepping on Shia’s toes, so she’ll definitely win the bet. (First Act Decision)
C: Rachel tells Shia of the change, asks if there’s something wrong between Quinn and Shia. Shia is upset and gets defensive.
B: Chet hears the girls complain how bored they are since this episode is all about Mary. Chet makes a call to have a bunny brought to set.
C: Insecure from what Rachel said, Shia gives Mary alcohol, encouraged by compliments from Quinn.
C: She has previously switched out Mary’s medication, and is convinced this will help Mary be more entertaining on camera. She’s nervous when Mary says her doctor her told to never mix alcohol with her meds.
B: Chet asks Quinn what she’s prepping for the meeting. She says she wants to pitch the network without him.
A: Adam is not happy about having a family day with Mary and her daughter. Rachel gives him tips and they have a moment. The chemistry is REAL.
A: Adam and Mary have a sexy moment on camera together. Her daughter Lilly shows up and he takes Rachel’s advice to make it a good moment.
B: Chet has given bored contestant Anna a bunny which she brings on set, stealing the attention away from the date. Mary gets angry and overreacts to the situation, sending Anna away.
A: Rachel and Quinn watch footage of Mary and it’s very boring. Her talk gets steamy for a moment, prompting Quinn to look into Mary’s backstory with her ex-husband (he abused her). Rachel is hesitant but eventually agrees to bring the ex in since it is supposedly empowering for victims to confront their attackers. (Midpoint)
B: Adam confronts Anna about her attempt to sabotage the date. He’s not upset and they plan to meet up later.
A/C: Shia finds out that Rachel is bringing in the ex. She’s upset and thinks this is taking things too far.
A: Kirk, the ex husband, arrives and wants to talk to Mary. Initially she freaks out but ultimately she is strong.
D: Adam attempts to step in to calm Kirk down but when Kirk looks like he might hurt Rachel, Jeremy jumps in to take Kirk out as things get violent.
B: Quinn preps for the pitch but Chet tells her she needs to be able to improvise and excite the executives.
D: Rachel and Jeremy are awkward as his girlfriend is mad that Jeremy clearly still has feelings for Rachel.
B: Quinn pitches the network executives but they seem fairly uninterested. Chet jumps in and excites them. Quinn’s sour attitude towards him turns around as she bounces jokes and ideas with Chet at the execs.
A: Adam and Rachel talk with her telling him he has to move Mary to the next round or he’ll look like a jerk. Adam alludes that he may have feelings for someone else though (Rachel, duh).
C: Mary is getting ahead of herself as she talks directly to the camera. She appears to have a realization and walks off camera. Shia is worried and takes it out on Rachel.
C: Mary talks to her ex. He blames her for the abuse, saying that she wanted it and that she previously admitted she deserved it. Mary looks shattered as Kirk says she will pass her mental issues onto their daughter Lilly.
A: On camera, Mary says goodbye to her sister, daughter, and the other kids. She gives Lilly a big hug goodbye… maybe too big/emotional?
B: Quinn and Chet celebrate their victory with the network. They are interrupted with a call from Chet’s pregnant wife. Quinn remembers why she can’t rely on Chet and storms off.
A/B: Quinn wins the bet as Adam tells Mary he would like her to stay another week. (False Climax) The fun is cut short when shortly after Mary is standing on the roof. (Low Point)
A: Rachel attempts to talk Mary down from the roof. Mary seems deliriously content as she talks.
B: Chet apologizes profusely. Quinn ignores him as she tries to get authorities over to the house ASAP.
A/C: Mary steps off the room and dies on impact with the ground. Rachel goes into shock as she silently stares down at Mary’s body. (Climax)
B: Quinn and Chet rush to Mary, horrified, and see Rachel still on the roof.
In the first season, the bulk of episodes would center around a different contestant each week and a set piece date for the bachelor and the central contestant. This second season has lost that a bit as it has focused more on larger issues (and topical/sensational stories) over individual character. If you’re spec-ing the show, even though the show has shifted focus in season two, you should still center your own concept around a contestant and a set piece, and not allow the emotional turmoil that Rachel and Quinn go through appear as more than a strong simmer below the surface.
Like any other cable or network show, UnREAL‘s acts are broken up by commercials. The pilot is written as having five acts though but the show always has five commercial breaks (forcing six acts and a teaser). I don’t know if the writers’ room writes it as five or six acts (though I’m sure you could find out after a trip to the WGA library if you’re local) but as you’re looking at structuring your spec episode you should make room for five commercial breaks.
One of my favorite things about this show is that you know the set piece, the central contestant, and the emotional status of Rachel, Quinn, Chet (and anyone else necessary) within the first three to five minutes. These scripts are TIGHT. No line of dialogue is superfluous. Even if Quinn appears to just be making a dark and quirky remark, she is really updating us on where with are in the emotional arc for the contestant and raising the stakes or reassuring the producers around her as she watches the footage. Everyone on the show is effected by Quinn’s opinions so do not simply let her dialogue showcase your dialogue skills, but also the power of her thoughts on the world around her.
Rachel is an incredibly difficult character to write. Her backstory is fully revealed in season two but in season one all we knew was that she broke down. She has convinced herself at this point that the show can be a platform for women’s rights issues, but she is a complete participant in the bullying that happens against the contestants. It’s a fine line to balance. Rachel is the ultimate manipulator (as we see her do with one simple question to Shia early on in the episode) but she has the toughest time manipulating herself into action. Her storyline is always the A-Story though (Quinn is second) so she must talk herself each week into being 100% behind what she’s doing, and this dialogue has to be convincing and not too expositional. Again, a very tough line to walk.
Because the bulk of episodes are confined to the set, the many storylines and personalities the show is juggling are very much intertwined. What might be easier for spec-ing purposes would be to look at the episode with just two storylines: Rachel and Quinn. Then go back and flesh out how it effects the other producers, Chet, stray contestants, etc., in order to flesh out their own goals in the episode.
The more I think about it, the more I realize this may be one of the toughest shows on television to pull off because their are so many important elements. Other shows don’t have to pull off the pace, plus dialogue, and put so many complex personalities on display each week and yet UnREAL makes it happen over and over again. It would be an incredibly impressive spec to have if you manage all of these elements. Good luck!