CULTURE & ARTS

How A Show About Reality TV Is Taking On Racial Politics In America

And how they made sure they did it right.
Shiri Appleby, B.J. Britt and Constance Zimmer star in Season 2 of "UnREAL." Britt plays Darius Hill, the new suitor on "Ever
Shiri Appleby, B.J. Britt and Constance Zimmer star in Season 2 of "UnREAL." Britt plays Darius Hill, the new suitor on "Everlasting," the dating reality show within the world of "UnREAL."

After 20 seasons (not to mention 12 seasons of "The Bachelorette"), America's sweetheart reality show "The Bachelor" has yet to star a black lead.

Sure, each season starts out with a few black, biracial, and occasional Latina or Asian contestants splashed into the mix -- especially as the show has aged and confronted criticism and a lawsuit about its whiteness -- but really just enough to dim the "Aryan Dating Game" aura over the whole affair. On "The Bachelor," our country's race issues are most apparent by how invisible race (and non-whiteness in general) is.

For Lifetime scripted drama "UnREAL," which revolves around a fictional reality dating show called "Everlasting," the move to cast a black bachelor -- the crushworthy B.J. Britt as NFL quarterback Darius Beck -- took just two seasons. And they're not stopping with that superficial nod to racial politics. With the second season poised to premiere Monday at 10 p.m., previews have already revealed that the edgy show will dive right into the complex and layered issues of racial representation and tokenism, liberal paternalism, veiled bigotry and how these intractable problems can interact explosively with television networks' thirst for ratings and social media chatter.

Prior to the show's premiere, co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and showrunner Carol Barbee spoke frankly with HuffPost's Bachelor recap podcast, "Here to Make Friends," about the nerve-wracking decision to make Season 2 of "UnREAL" revolve around race, and about how the show's writers worked to address those narratives accurately, sensitively and fearlessly.

On the decision to cast a black suitor:

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: I came into the room this year after having talked to Carol about what I wanted to do, and then put it to the writers' room -- there are two women of color in our room, and [I] definitely gave them primary importance in that conversation -- and just said, this is what I would like to do this season, and I know it's really problematic. I'm really scared. I feel like it's going to be pretty uncomfortable at times. I feel like it's worth doing. Do you guys feel like it's worth doing? We had that conversation and it felt like everybody was on board, and it did feel worth doing.

On listening to writers of color when making a show about race:

Shapiro: [...] The first couple of weeks, a lot what we did was have those few writers talk about their experience as black women in terms of dating, and also there were conversations about football and black men, and violence against black men, and men in the media, and what it means to have a black romantic lead. We just spent a lot of time talking, and letting them talk and listening, because I think that was really important to me -- that we weren't prescribing what we should do, but that we were just listening to what their experience actually was. And then they pretty much had free rein for the rest of the season that, if they felt like we weren't hitting it right, to nix it. 

And then we had to go about just writing a TV show and coming up with the most interesting plot, but I think there were some really primary things put in place. I was shocked. I think, in those two weeks, I learned more about race than I could even have imagined, and I feel like I'm a person who's paid a lot of attention to it, but specifically some of the problems with white feminism when it comes to black women. That was something that I had peripherally thought about but I hadn't just actually sat and listened to two black women tell me about their experiences with it, and that was super informative to how we wrote Rachel and Ruby, who is the black activist character.

On capturing the humanity underlying the racial conflicts:

Carol Barbee: I'm from the South, I'm from North Carolina, and I've written about race a lot, it creeps into everything because it's the world I have always lived in. [...] So what I kept saying all along the way was, I'm all about writing about race, but let's just make sure that we do it in a really specific, truthful way, because what's really hard as a Southerner is when you see these stories told, the Southerners are all caricatures. [...] 

So that was my thing all the way through, was making sure that, literally, the character of Beth Ann, who's got the Confederate flag bikini on -- which is insane, like, the Confederate flag is the most hateful symbol, and it is in the South as well, there's a very small group of people who will say otherwise, so I know how offensive that symbol is. But to make that character real, and to have her be someone with a point of view where she's just never been outside of her own circle of family and friends, and she's just never been to the wider world and she's never questioned her beliefs or her bikini. Until she does. And what I love, love, love is how there's a line in there -- she actually falls in love with Darius while she's wearing a bikini with the Confederate flag, and there's this idea that racism is confusing, and race is confusing, and that's how it is in the South. [...]

I think everyone starts the season out, including the black bachelor, saying "I'm not about race, I don't have a big opinion, we're doing this because it'll be noisy television" -- but there comes a point in the season where nobody can stay on the fence anymore, where everybody has to figure out where they are.

On Rachel as white feminist:

Shapiro: It's also such great story fodder, also for Jay, who's a really wonderful character on our show, he's one of the other producers and he's black, and I think it was such great story fodder in terms of activating him, because Rachel brings in a black suitor, is taking all this credit for it, patting herself on the back for it, and treating him like a peon, ordering him around in terms of serving her greater purpose. The complexities of that are so fucked up and so hard to even look at. But that's when we were having the conversations about white feminism and white liberalism, and the privileges of having a liberal arts education and feeling really holier-than-thou, and the white paternalism of coming in and being like, "I know better for you guys, I'm going to save you and I'll make a right decision." We really thought about it in terms of Rachel just, again, patting herself on the back and taking credit for something she couldn't possibly understand.

On beating "The Bachelor" franchise to casting a black bachelor:

Shapiro: It wasn't the reason to do it. I think for me it was like, we have a platform; we have a responsibility to do something with that platform. We are what we are as a TV show, but I think that, again, it was one of the reasons we all held hands and said, "Let's do this," because it was better than not doing it. Even though it is problematic, even though it's a show run by two white women. That is problematic, but it's still worth doing.

It just takes the balls to do it even though you might get in trouble or even though ad sales might not like it, or whatever it is that scares ["The Bachelor"]. It's just taking that leap. And I think... it's time. 

Barbee: And not to sound too much like Quinn, but I really feel like in television the only safe place is the not safe place. The only place to really have a show that matters or that gets any sort of eyeballs on it is to do things that provoke, and I think it's a good conversation to have. 

Shapiro: I think that it's legitimately scary for them because I think that a black man dating white women is still really controversial in 2016, and I think that is absolutely insane, but it appears to be true. [...]

I also think it is a little antiquated. It does feel a little bit behind the times to me that they really feel like it would take down the show or that people would lose their jobs. I'm not sure that that's accurate at this point.

On not playing it safe: 

Shapiro: It definitely never felt safe. It never felt like a safe zone. It wasn't like we got to a place where we were like, "Oh, we're bullet-proof, nobody's going to freak out on Twitter. We are goodhearted people trying to do the best we can to write this story as honestly and humanly as we can, and we're probably going to fuck up at some point, but we think it's worth doing."

Listen to the full conversation on "Here to Make Friends" (interview starts at 28:58).

 

 

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