WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE JULY 18 EPISODE OF “UNREAL” – TITLED “AMBUSH”
*The Lifetime original series “UnReal” tackles the issue of race this season with its fictional dating reality show “Everlasting” featuring the country’s first African American bachelor. But things took a Black Lives Matter turn this week when another major African American character, the bachelor’s close confident Romeo, was shot by a white police officer during a traffic stop.
The episode’s African American writer, Ariana Jackson, had no idea how timely her script would become when writing it months ago. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police in separate incidents two months before the episode’s July 18 airdate.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lifetime execs “never seriously considered shelving the episode in light of the recent events, suggesting instead that the scene is part of a larger, powerful narrative that’s expressly designed to explore such topics.”
But Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the series’ co-creator, who directed the episode, says she panicked when suddenly life was imitating art. “I definitely was like, ‘Oh s**t’…. And 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,” she says.
Jackson, one of the Peabody Award-winning series’ two black writers on stage, was more somber in her assessment: “I wish it was last year’s problem and [the episode] felt dated by now.”
Read excerpts from THR’s Q&A with Jackson and Shapiro regarding the July 18 episode, “Ambush”:
Was Romeo always the one who was going to be shot, or did you consider it being your Everlasting suitor, Darius?
Gertrude Shapiro: There was a moment where we talked about Darius getting shot. But 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. I directed the episode, but Ariana wrote the script and she had iterations of that phone call where Rachel was saying stuff like, “Well, I got pulled over in this neighborhood and it was no big deal.” She’s spent seven weeks with this guy by now, and in her mind he’s this charming, nice guy, her show’s romantic lead, and she just doesn’t understand that his body is different and that he’s in more danger.
Jackson: Yeah, 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.
Ariana, what do you remember thinking as you heard the initial pitch?
Jackson: I remember being very, very nervous. I remember thinking, “No f—ing way.” I remember staring down a room full of white people and being like, “Oh no, this is not something I want to do.” (Laughs)
Jackson: Because I really worried that it would turn into something that was very whitesplaining of the issue and very paternalistic about the issue. Like, “This is how we will tell everybody how to feel about these situations.” So I was really nervous about it, but I think Sarah is exactly right: being too scared to do a story is not a good reason not to do a story, and I do feel like 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. 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. And our show is unique in that we were able to tell this very meta story from a show created by white, liberal feminists through the point of view of a character who’s a white, liberal feminist tackling this issue. To me, that felt really interesting.
There have been far too many examples to run down here, but we recently watched two more examples of black men being shot and killed by cops. You were sitting there knowing that this episode was going to air less than two weeks later — what are the emotions swirling through your heads?
Gertrude Shapiro: I definitely was like, “Oh shit.” And then 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. I also hope that people can have honest conversations about this stuff because it’s so scary to talk about, but what we found within our room is that being really honest about these issues helped us make something that we feel proud of and that we feel has integrity.
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.
Lifetime opted to keep this episode on the schedule as planned and not shelf it as often is done when life suddenly imitates art in this way. Was that the right move in your minds?
Gertrude Shapiro: I believe in the basic integrity of the story in terms of it being carefully thought through. We made an effort, for instance, to write and cast the cop as a rookie who probably hadn’t received a lot of the escalation training and also to have a certain amount of empathy for him. We don’t want to gloss that over or take away responsibility but in the specific scene that we’re depicting, all of the blame lays on Rachel — for underestimating the situation, for creating the situation, for trying to document the situation to basically impress her boyfriend. Rachel is the asshole in this situation. She put the cop’s life in danger, and she put two men’s lives in danger, and there’s something in that that I feel has integrity. I also think it’s important that Romeo doesn’t die. I feel like we’d probably be having a different conversation if he did.
In an ideal world, what do you hope the take away or legacy of an episode like this is?
Gertrude Shapiro: The conversation about white allies is a vital one. If you are a white person who cares about these issues, what is the appropriate way to be invited into the conversation? And to [that end], what is inappropriate, and what is it that you maybe don’t understand? I think that’s another reason why the episode is relevant right now. For me, as a white person who does care about these issues, I’m glad that that conversation might be happening and that [we’re] pointing out that there’s no way that you can know what it’s like to be a black man. It’s not your story to tell but there are ways to be an ally, but you have to be asked and you have to listen. So I feel like it’s additive, it’s part of the conversation that still needs to be happening — or at least that’s my hope.
Read the entire Q&A here at The Hollywood Reporter.