As I’ve said before, unReal is one of the shows on television that are way better than they have any right to be, and last night’s episode proved that without a doubt. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of a reality show producer named Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) as she puts on a Bachelor-style romance drama called Everlasting. Now in its second season, the show does tackle a lot of heavy issues such as suicide, mental illness and homophobia. However, I knew things were turned up a notch when the episode was preceded by a warning involving gun violence, so far as I know the first of its kind in TV.
Side note: Seriously, one aspect of gun control that would be so easy and painless to institute is these warnings.
So this season’s theme is Rachel’s quest to make Everlasting history by having the show’s first black suitor, quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt). Beck is on the show to mask a possibly career-ending injury and to up his image with women after calling a woman reporter a bitch on camera. Over the course of the show, the producers have paired him with a Confederate flag-bikini-wearing Southern girl, a black activist who was busted with him mid-coitus by her father, and an abuse survivor the show manipulated into confessing her abuse to Beck before then staging a scene to make him think she was lying. It’s dark, compelling stuff.
This week, though, things went to 11. Fed up with a lackluster evening with his date (who ended up getting the ashes of a dead man blown into his nose), Beck and his brother Romeo (Gentry White) decide to take a Bentley and two of the other girls out for a spin off-camera. Rachel and her showrunner elect to call the cops, report the Bentley stolen and film the results.
The terrible, painful thing that's in all ways predictable in this day and age results. In the end, a black man is hanging on for his life after a skittish officer shoots him in the confusion.
What makes this a teachable moment is Rachel’s presumptions. Throughout the show, she’s talked about wanting to leave the show to do important documentary film work on real-world issues, primarily in Africa (we white people think that’s where oppression is born. Sorry, Africa). In fact, the suitor for last season shows up in this episode to try to woo her away from the show by telling her he’s spent some time there helping locals get access to clean water.
“You think that you can kiss a few AIDS babies and be the moral authority?” Rachel throws back in his face.
But that’s the thing about Rachel. She has spent the entire season justifying her ever-more-manipulative choices for good television by saying she was striking a blow for black presence and black romance and intersectionality. It’s her banner song. For Everlasting to have a black suitor makes the world a slightly better, slightly less racist place.
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And yet, when faced with an opportunity to “make a difference,” she and her showrunner unintentionally staged the murder of an actual black man…why? To prove the Los Angeles cops have a racial bias problem and sometimes kill people in escalated situations? To show #BlackLivesMatter by snuffing one out on TV for shock value? Because the tensions between black people and the police in America just didn’t have a human enough face?
There is a fine line white people have to walk between helping boost the signal of the marginalized and using the marginalized to boost the signal of their own voice. God knows the painful irony of being a notable male feminist writer whom people sometimes listen to over women who're saying the exact same thing drives me to the bottle more than is probably healthy. The realm of social justice often turns into a contest for bestest warrior among the privileged classes, and in the meantime, people die while we seek upvotes for crying over their blood.
Rachel is devastated by what happens. One of her longtime colleagues, who is both gay and a person of color, tears into her over what she did, asking whether she has ever considered if everyone would just be better off without her presence. This is a question every white person needs to continually ask when facing issues of inequality. Is it time to speak, or is it time to shut up?
Now, I have no doubt unReal will return to its regularly scheduled celebration of the train wreck that is dating shows in general and Rachel Goldberg in particular, and that’s fine because it’s a really good show, you guys. I never miss it. But for one shining moment at a dark time in America’s long war over how to fix racial violence, this show was dead on the freakin’ money.