Getting UnREAL About Race

The show’s Black Lives Matter story line has been messy and manipulative

I never thought UnREAL’s Rachel Goldberg would have anything in common with Superman’s longtime lover Lois Lane, but lo and behold, in this week’s episode, “Ambush,” she proved just as messy as the Metropolis reporter when it comes to dealing with race — more specifically, by fucking shit up in trying to relate to black people. In a November 1970 issue of Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane, Lois paid a visit to Metropolis’s “Little Africa” neighborhood and was horrified by the sight of impoverished black people who referred to her as “whitey.” The trauma inspired her to ask Superman to use a magical machine he somehow had at his disposal to make her into a sistah. Lois Lane then turned into a black woman, and this cultural tourism helped her save the life of a black man and made her feel better about herself.

All through the second season of UnREAL, Rachel has been as dumb as Lois during her 24-hour blackface experiment. The conceit of the series is that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Bachelor-esque television show called Everlasting. The second season of UnREAL features Everlasting’s first black suitor, professional football player Darius Beck. While Rachel’s boss, Quinn King, sees Darius’s inclusion purely as a ratings grab, Rachel has deluded herself into thinking she’s making history by putting a black man on a white dating show. That has mostly manifested itself in her prattling on about how “real” Everlasting is this season and getting a Black Lives Matter activist cast on the show to spar with a Confederate flag bikini–wearing Southerner as they vie for Darius’s love.

The racial politics of the series have never been extraordinarily deep. Last season, when the suitor was a British stud, there were two black women in the cast who were urged to embody the “ghetto bitch” stereotype so they could stay on the show longer. This season, every conversation about the BLM movement has involved how Darius will be represented on TV (he’s on the show because he needs to repair his image after calling a white female reporter a bitch, but, uh, Kanye West called America's sweetheart Taylor Swift “that bitch” and it hasn't affected his record sales, so I’m not sure what fantasy the show is living in). There are frank conversations about how white audiences will be bored if Darius dates a black woman, so they push him toward Beth Ann, the bikini racist.

I’ll give UnREAL credit for constantly poking holes in liberal white racism, the kind that’s casual, that makes you think sending a black man like Darius to Alabama will incite a race war. It belies the fact that most racism, barring Republican National Conventions, is low-key. For one, there are black people in Alabama. Two, a family isn’t going to run a rich black male celebrity out of their home. How do you think O.J. Simpson became so popular among white people? When Beth Ann realizes the suitor is black and not white, she’s absolutely embarrassed by her Confederate flag bikini. And Rachel is thrown for a loop when Beth Ann’s family is not only excited to meet Darius, they’re fans of his.

But therein lies the problem with this season of UnREAL: So many of the characters are superficial. Its attempt to tackle race does not allow its white characters to be more than casual tourists. Darius is hardly a fully realized character like Adam was last year, and his cousin Romeo is even less developed. When the people around him exhibit racist behavior, we don’t get to see him react to it — we see him flare up at them, call them ridiculous, and move on. But we already know Rachel is being ridiculous. What does Darius think in his private moments? How does he feel about interracial dating, or the show in general, or how he’ll be perceived by the black community? The black characters aren’t truly characters at all this season. They’re props for white characters to experience racism.

A lot of criticism has been lobbed at Orange Is the New Black this season for the death of a prominent black character and its usage of the Black Lives Matter movement and black pain to develop its white characters. But I don’t see it. The black characters on OITNB are fully realized, to the point that the white lead, Piper Chapman, has become an afterthought. When that particular character died in the fourth season’s penultimate episode, the next episode focused on the grief her friends and surrogate prison family felt. Her black life mattered. Contrast that with this week’s episode of UnREAL, where Rachel calls the cops on Darius and Romeo after they steal one of the show’s cars so they can show their viewers how “real” police brutality is. Her little experiment ends up with Romeo shot by a police officer, but the episode ends with her grief, her sobbing, her realizing that the man she’s fallen for, new producer Coleman Wasserman, might have even gone too far in trying to catch the incident on tape.

Romeo is barely even in the season. He only returns this week so he can be fodder for the manipulative games the white characters play with one another. The most compelling part of UnREAL has always been the messy relationship between Rachel and Quinn, two women who love one another but are too cutthroat to admit it. But in this season, their relationship and the chess game they’ve played with black lives doesn’t resemble The Bachelor at all.

UnREAL has always excelled at putting up a funhouse mirror to the conventions of “true love” that permeate saccharine shows like The Bachelor. But we already know those shows aren’t real life, and we mock them when we watch, which is why UnREAL is able to take our obsessions and twist them into something darker, something more wicked. But when it comes to race, the portrayals of black love on television, and black men being shot by police, there’s nothing to laugh at. Which it leaves UnREAL without anything to truly offer as a satire, unless the real satire is watching television writers attempt to write something profound about how white people are oblivious to black lives and failing just like their self-obsessed characters, who can only break down into tears at the trauma of black bodies.