The Faux Progressivism Of UnReal & Police Brutality On TV

Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime
To be Black in 2016 is to regularly turn on the news and see footage of Black death as it plays out in real time. In the last month alone, we've watched the grainy cell phone video and Facebook livestream of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling's deaths. In the two years since Michael Brown was shot, footage of these deadly police encounters has become a near-daily part of our media diet. Every subsequent clip is both harder to watch and harder to look away from, and the hits just keep on coming — even in fictional format. Over the course of its sophomore season, UnReal — the award-winning, darkly satirical Lifetime series that explores the cutthroat underbelly of a reality dating show — has added race to its purview. During season 1, UnReal focused an insistent lens on working womanhood, female friendship, as well as mental illness and anxiety. But this time around, the series' theme has shifted to Black identity — and it's been handled with far less sensitivity and nuance. This season of Everlasting — the show's Bachelor-like dating franchise — features its first-ever Black suitor, pro footballer Darius Beck. UnReal paints him as an emotional and empathetic man, worried about how he'll take care of his extended family after his NFL career ends. The contestants competing for his affections are a mix of white women and women of color, including a few hand-picked Black stereotypes: a butch Black cop with closely cropped hair, a gorgeous Georgia belle, and an angry, Berkley-educated Black Lives Matter activist who sports an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt the first time she meets Darius. The producers of Everlasting are very self-aware of how they capitalize on archetypes, playing them to their advantage to make sensational TV. But UnReal has a blindspot for actual Black experience, and spends only minimal time teasing out the subtleties of what it means for a Black man to find love on a network that panders to white interests. It's a surface level portrait that some might find satisfying if they think a Tidal subscription and a love of Kanye equate to an understanding of Black culture. But if you are Black, or have actual Black friends beyond following DeRay on Twitter, prepare to be disappointed. In this season’s seventh episode “Ambush,” the show overreaches: Instead of demonstrating awareness of Black lives and romance between two Black characters (which is rarely seen on TV), it betrayed its utter disinterest in Black trauma. For reasons I won't spoil here, Darius reaches a breaking point, and takes two contestants along with his longtime manager, Romeo, out for a spin in the production Bentley parked in the driveway of the Everlasting mansion. When two white producers, Rachel and Coleman, realize he's gone, they call the cops — not because they consider this an act of theft, but because they see an opportunity to get some footage of how police officers really respond to a Black suspect. To justify the move to themselves, the producers congratulate one another on their shared pursuit of Big, Important, Change-Making Television.
Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime
If you've been paying attention to the real news, you already know what happens next: The producers' conceit turns sour, and when the police pull over the car, they wind up shooting Romeo, Darius's cousin and personal manager. His lies on the ground, unable to move, while Rachel and Coleman — who have captured the whole thing on video — look on, horrified. So what are we supposed to take away from this sickening scene? Maybe the sequence means to show us something about the way white reality TV producers don't actually understand the reality of police violence against people of color, that they somehow underestimate how serious it really is. Or perhaps it's supposed to convey that wealth or status (both of which Darius has in spades) can't save you from bigotry. But — at a very basic level — what the "Ambush" episode really shows us is that the producers of UnReal have no problem borrowing from Black devastation to make for dramatic television, without intending to follow through and make a point. UnReal capitalizes on the cultural zeitgeist, but it doesn't take that next step by circling back to examine the consequences police violence has on the Black community at large, or even on the show's Black characters.

Romeo lives, by the way — unlike Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and the countless others whose names have not made headlines. But the fact that he survives is only mentioned in passing, and his medical condition isn't further discussed. The way in which the show treats Romeo's shooting wouldn't have improved had he died, but at least that might have forced Rachel and Coleman to reckon with the consequences of their actions. Instead, they both enjoy that particular gift of white privilege wherein wrongdoings are simply swept under the rug. Ultimately, UnReal absolves Rachel and Coleman of the part they played in Romeo's shooting, focusing on their regret instead — and immediately turning its lens back to their sagas, like whether or not Romeo's shooting might jeopardize the show, and all the other white people who work on it. It's as if — by featuring the police violence itself — the series thought it had done enough, added to some conversation, or done right by the Black characters. But it didn't. UnReal's writers touched on an endemic issue that plagues Americans today. But they were not so brave or conscientious as to show us the ripple effect, or to dig deep into what it means that Black people are shot by police officers all the time. Instead, the shooting on UnReal was just another Black experience seen through the lens of the white gaze, before the camera predictably panned away. Read these stories next:
UnReal Tackles Money, Dick, Power & Diversity — But Not In That Order
Reminder: There Was A Black Bachelor Before UnReal Came Along
UnReal Digs Into Police Brutality & Brings Back Adam In "Ambush"

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