How UnREAL and the Republican National Convention Gave Us a Night of TV White Privilege

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Photo: Getty Images, Lifetime

Over the past several months, the media has compared the Republican presidential campaign to a reality show on multiple occasions. One can understand why. The GOP candidate, Donald Trump, not only once served as Job Terminator in Chief on NBC’s The Apprentice, but he also happens to speak with the tactlessness viewers have come to expect from a real housewife trying her damnedest to start a catfight. 

Still, that comparison felt newly relevant last night, as two different TV broadcasts — one a political convention, the other a scripted series about a reality show — demonstrated once again that the worlds of real-life politics and reality-TV drama are sharing the same space these days. This time, the collision illustrated both what white privilege looks like and just how surreal it can be to simply watch TV on a Monday night in the time of Trump.

At 10 p.m. Monday night, multiple networks were airing prime-time coverage of the Republican National Convention at the same time Lifetime was unveiling this week’s episode of UnREAL, the series about the tawdry, behind-the-scenes machinations on a Bachelor-style reality show. At the convention, the theme of the night was Make America Safe Again. The featured speakers were former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who didn’t so much deliver his speech as shout it until it seemed like his head would pop off his neck and into the rafters of the Quicken Loans Arena, and Melania Trump, wife of the Donald, whose speech went fine until it became clear that sections of it were lifted from the remarks Michelle Obama gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (As an added bonus, the speech also Rickrolled us.)

Meanwhile, over on Lifetime, UnREAL aired the episode its promos billed as the “most shocking” of its second season. (Note: spoilers about last night’s episode to follow.) The shocking part kicked into gear when Rachel — producer of Everlasting, the reality show within this scripted series — and the showrunner, Coleman, decide to call the cops on Everlasting’s first African-American suitor, Darius, when he sneaks off set for a joyride with his buddy Romeo and two of the show’s contestants, fully aware that, with a black man behind the wheel, there might be a minor altercation they could clandestinely capture on camera, giving Everlasting a frisson of ripped from the hashtags, Black Lives Matter relevance. Sure enough, the cops stop the Everlasting party sedan and things escalate. Rachel — all of a sudden hearing the faint chirps of her inner Jiminy Cricket — stops filming and starts running toward the car to prevent Darius from getting arrested, causing one of the cops to panic. The result: Romeo, who is also black, gets shot, and Rachel, overwhelmed with white guilt, has a nervous breakdown.

So let’s recap. Last night it was possible, in one moment, to watch Giuliani express his appreciation for our nation’s police officers — “When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white, they just come to save you!” — and ask questions about the racial divide in this country — “What happened to there’s no black America, there’s no white America, there is just America?” — then, seconds later, switch to a TV series in which a black man gets shot by a cop for no justifiable reason because of a white woman’s bad choices. You could flip back to a convention in which a former reality-TV star is being celebrated as our potential next president, and then flip back again to a TV show that demonstrates how destructive reality TV is for everyone who gets pulled into its fame-hungry vortex. If you continued to play this version of remote-control ping-pong, you could witness Melania Trump discussing inclusiveness while borrowing words once uttered by our African-American First Lady and speaking them in front of a crowd that, at least based on CNN’s wide shots, consisted mostly of white faces. And a moment later, you could absorb Lifetime programming that, as Angelica Jade Bastien noted in her UnREAL recap, addresses the Black Lives Matter movement by running it through the filter of a white woman’s experience. Whichever choice you made, you wound up watching another episode of How White Privilege in America Works. It was a case of reality-show politics inadvertently echoing reality-show art, or vice versa, and the Venn diagram overlap of it all might have permanently short-circuited my brain.

Of course — and this is an important distinction — unlike politicians at a presidential convention, the people who make UnREAL aren’t crafting public policy or suggesting how to steer the national agenda. They’re simply trying to tell a story with some socially significant undertones. When Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL’s creator and the director of this week’s episode, worked on this chapter in the Everlasting narrative, I am sure she and her colleagues thought they were shining a spotlight on how clueless and callous white people can be about the black experience, especially in regard to police brutality. (This Hollywood Reporter interview with Shapiro and UnREAL writer Ariana Jackson, a woman of color, suggests that's exactly what they were carefully aiming to do.) The problem arises in the execution of that well-intended vision in this episode. After Romeo is shot, we don't see him again. We don’t know if he lived or died, nor do we know how Darius is affected by what happened. Instead, the focus shifts entirely to Rachel. She is the show’s protagonist, so in one sense, sure, it’s logical to explore her emotions after this incident. But by zeroing in on her to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, UnREAL is essentially doing what it’s also criticizing Rachel for doing: making a black man’s tragedy all about her. 

“This is not your story to tell,” Jay, a black Everlasting producer, tells Rachel when he realizes that she called the cops on Darius in order to highlight racism on Everlasting in a “real” way. He’s accusing her of co-opting the black experience in order to advance a narrative that makes her feel like she’s doing something positive. It’s a phrase that, coincidentally, feels faintly applicable to that Melania Trump speech. (Melania Trump’s story is absolutely hers to tell. She, or her speechwriters, just shouldn’t use Michelle Obama’s words to do it.)

The Republican National Convention and UnREAL exist in very different places within the TV landscape. Still: As weird as it may sound, they both served as reminders of how often storytellers — whether they are politicians, the wives of politicians, or TV showrunners — are tempted to take the most comfortable route when it comes to addressing racism and the need for tolerance. The team behind UnREAL — which, again and as noted in this piece, is a diverse bunch — can and should think hard about this most recent episode and consider how they can try to frame their narratives in even more sensitive, illuminating ways going forward.

Technically, the Republicans can and should do the same thing when it comes to their party's narrative, too. If they actually did? Wow. That would really be unreal.