Tragedy rocked UnREAL this week, making Lifetime’s satire of reality TV just another instance of art colliding with life to devastating effect.
And while some shows have chosen to delay topical yet potentially controversial episodes in the wake of recent shootings that have drawn attention to race relations in the United States, UnREAL decided to face racism, violence and discomfort head-on in Monday’s episode.
Spoiler warning: For those who haven’t watched the latest episode of UnREAL, plot details will be revealed.
The end of “Ambush” unflinchingly expressed the horror and anger of the cast and crew of Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque reality show-within-a-show, after the show’s first black suitor Darius (B.J. Britt) saw his friend Romeo (Gentry White) shot by an inexperienced police officer who was questioning them for taking a joy ride with two contestants.
Stemming from a tragically terrible decision by off-the-rails producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby), who misrepresented the innocent drive in a call to police, the incident’s parallels to many recent events across the country is not lost on creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and writer Ariana Jackson.
“I definitely was like, ‘Oh s—,’ ” Shapiro says in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the episode’s reflection of all-too-recent headlines. “And then [my next thought was], ‘I hope we got it right’ because it’s such a crucial issue right now, and I feel really scared to be on the frontlines of it.”
Says Jackson, “It would have been great for this episode to have been irrelevant by now. It’s hard to think about these real-life events in the context of what we want for our show. I wish it was last year’s problem and it felt dated by now.”
As the team behind UnREAL began plotting season 2, Shapiro and her staff knew having a black suitor on Everlasting would offer up many opportunities for dialogue – but it also surfaced some fear and tension. When the outline for “Ambush” was pitched, they decided to embrace that discomfort.
“I said, ‘I’m really scared and it makes me totally uncomfortable, but I think it’s worth doing,’ ” says Shapiro. “Where we landed as a [writers] room is that it’s better to do it than not do it and it would be a shame to be too scared to do it.”
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Jackson, who is African American, admits she worried the episode might turn into “whitesplaining” but says the team was committed to having an honest conversation: “Everybody in the room was so willing to talk for days and weeks on ends about this stuff – really get into it and not only talk about it, but listen.”
She continues, “We had really long discussions about all of it, and there were moments that got really tense and uncomfortable but at the end of the day everybody was actually hearing each other and we got to a place where we were able to tell this story.”
Shapiro and Jackson emphasize that Romeo’s shooting links directly back to Rachel, an upper middle-class liberal white woman who made a rash decision without understanding the context or consequences for two black men. It was an innocent mistake, sure, but also an arrogant and possibly fatal one, and this sort of passive ignorance can be problematic when confronting and attempting to reconcile the issues surrounding police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“From the start, one of the important ideas is that Rachel has always been able to talk her way out of a traffic stop and so it didn’t occur to her that Darius wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of one. She didn’t realize what it meant to be a pretty little white girl,” says Shapiro, who reveals that the show did consider having Darius himself fall victim to the accidental shooting.
Jackson explains further, “She’s gotten to know this guy and she sees him in a very different light, and I think it’s hard for people to understand that in our country right now any black body can be seen as so threatening in this kind of situation. People still have this idea of, ‘Well, they must have been kind of thuggish or they must have done something to warrant this kind of treatment,’ but the point is that we are at a place where that’s not necessarily true.”
Says Shapiro, “That’s why we choreographed the pullover in the episode the way we did – that in a split second, a police officer who’s fearing for his life, when given the choice of a white woman [Rachel] running at him from a bush or a black man [Romeo] coming around a car, is always going to decide that the black man is more of a threat.”
But the people behind UnREAL chose to put forth an alternative ending to so many of this situation’s real-world proxies: “It’s important that Romeo doesn’t die,” says Shapiro. “I feel like we’d probably be having a different conversation if he did.”
UnREAL airs Mondays (10 p.m. ET) on Lifetime.