Toward the tail end of the opening sequence of Monday night’s Season 2 premiere of UnREAL—a drug-fueled Vegas bacchanal celebrating the new season of fictional Bachelor-like dating show Everlasting—our heroine in smudged mascara is quite literally climaxing over her bold casting genius.
As reality show producer Rachel Goldberg approaches orgasm during a mid-party tryst, she yells out in ecstasy: “The first black suitor! It was me! We’re gonna make history!”
In its Peabody Award-winning first season on Lifetime, of all places, UnREAL played as mesmerizing hall of mirrors—in the case of this show, coke-dusted mirrors—reflecting the disturbing, well, reality of what goes into making a reality TV show.
“Give them what they want,” shouted Constance Zimmer, who masterfully plays Quinn King, executive producer of the dating show modeled after The Bachelor. “Ponies. Princesses. Love. I don’t know—it’s a bunch of crap anyway.”
The behind-the-scenes look at the looking-for-love puppets being manipulated and the Gepetto producers pulling the strings confirmed what we’ve always suspected to be true, that the fairy tale romances depicted in shows like this truly are fantasies. But it also confronted us with some harsh truths—chiefly, that in the end we don’t care.
We don’t care whose lives are manipulated, or who is complicit in it. We just care the puppets are danced toward happily ever after, and get in some drunken cat fights along the way.
Exactly how accurate UnREAL’s depiction of these dating series is depends on who you ask, and that’s what gives the show its intrigue. As much as it’s an exposé or takedown of the genre, it’s a love letter to the whole thing—and especially to the people that watch. That’s why its season two twist in doing what The Bachelor has never done—cast a black suitor—merits an even closer watch.
As Shiri Appleby, the force of nature who plays the producer with the stroke of diversity genius, comes to the prospect of ratings, controversy, and history-making that follows casting a black suitor, a real-life examination of that very thing suddenly becomes far more somber.
Would the fictional events that unfold from UnREAL’s ugly, depraved, and utterly captivating depiction of the racially charged machinations that accompany its show-within-a-show’s first black suitor affect the likelihood of The Bachelor ever, after 20 seasons, finally doing the same?
Or, more likely, would it affect the lens through which we’d watch the show in the event that it ever does?
It is an embarrassment to the franchise and a testament to Hollywood’s institutionalized racism and risk-averse tendencies that The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have never had a black person looking-for-love star of the show (and, on another layer, the institutionalized racism that would make such a thing risk-averse in the first place).
Because here’s the thing. When it takes this long for something so seemingly logical to happen, the move becomes almost as token as it is progressive. And as UnREAL shows us in its unflinching, tortured way, that leads to some horrific revelations about human nature and the ways we exploit it.
When you watch UnREAL, you end up rooting for Quinn and Rachel to destroy lives and reduce contestants to sound bites and plot points. “Cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, and catfights,” Quinn tells her staff in Season 1. The contestants are borderline complicit in this, too, sure—moral ambiguity and deals with the devil are marching orders in the business of reality TV.
But when you watch UnREAL you reevaluate whether you’ve gone insane for cheering on such behavior, particularly when you realize you behave the same way when watching The Bachelor, which trades in real people too.
But when that manipulating becomes so heavily rooted in race, suddenly everything becomes a little ickier. A little more screwed up. A little too… real.
“The more white pussy the better,” Quinn says at one point in Monday’s premiere when it comes to casting the season’s girls. “The minute he lays a black hand on a white ass, Twitter will light on fire.”
What’s worse: the fact that Quinn is absolutely right, or that she’s mining that despicable truth for ratings and social media buzz?
A white girl is immediately hired for the show when she wears a Confederate flag bikini in her audition tape. She immediately gets a plot point, too—they naturally make her roommates with one of the black contestants.
When she asks a low-level producer to move rooms, Rachel berates the producer: “We’re not camp counselors, we don’t solve problems, OK? We create them, and then we point cameras at them. We need you to go outside and create an on-camera fight between the racist and the black debutante.”
A girl who looks likes she could be of Muslim heritage, though that is never actually articulated, is refusing the producers’ demands that she wear a headscarf on camera, because she never wears one in real life. “I don’t care that she’s never worn a headscarf,” Rachel says. “Quinn promised the network a terrorist. They will not understand unless she puts on a headscarf.”
And Rachel heavily recruits a girl named Ruby who is referred to in shorthand as “the blacktivist.” Ruby doesn’t want to miss the last few months of college to appear on a show that she says marginalizes and exploits black women. “Black girls only last a couple weeks on those shows, and they don’t get any airtime,” she tells Rachel, in a cutting critique to The Bachelor franchise. “Does it not even matter to you that we’re making history this season? The suitor’s black,” Rachel tells her.
When “the blacktivist” insists she doesn’t want to leave the work she’s doing, Rachel convinces her that Everlasting with its huge ratings and history-making season will help her to do that. She cites that teen pregnancy went down after Teen Mom. She credits The Real World with starting the gay rights movement. “But yeah, TV’s super useless as a medium change.”
Here is the show, again, holding up a mirror to our relationship with the reality TV craze. We scoff at the drunken debauchery of the Real Housewives and the mindless vapidness of the Kardashians, yet desperately try to convince ourselves that reality TV has value.
At one point Rachel’s state of mind is questioned in Monday’s UnREAL premiere. “I’m not manic,” she retorts. And then, reflexively: “I’m changing the world.”
It just happens that, in changing the world, in making a huge stride in diversity on TV, she is trading in racial stereotypes, reducing race relations to base indignities, and commoditizing bigotry.
Would we be able to watch a season of The Bachelor with a black suitor without suspecting that, behind-the-scenes, things might be the same?
In an interview with The Daily Beast, The Bachelor host Chris Harrison dismissed the idea that the fact that no black contestant ever makes it very far on the show is racist, saying, basically, the heart wants what it wants.
He passed the buck on the call for more diversity, too, saying it was “way above my paygrade.”
When people of that paygrade—specifically ABC’s entertainment chief Paul Lee—were asked about it in January, he assured reporters saying, “I’d be very surprised if The Bachelorette in the summer wasn’t diverse.”
According to reports, Caila Quinn, whose mother is Filipino and father is white, began filming the new season of The Bachelorette, but was abruptly fired and replaced with current Bachelorette JoJo Fletcher. Lee, it seems, had spoken prematurely.
A few days before Lee’s remarks, UnREAL co-creator and former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude told reporters that she had been involved in discussions about whether to cast a black suitor on the show.
“If anything we’ve all been privy to those conversations, because being in television, you have to be a pragmatist. I’ve heard in those day jobs really appalling things about race all the time,” she said. “For us, what we thought about was the Cheerios commercial—with this sweet couple waking up in the morning and making breakfast—and the KKK went nuts on Twitter, because it was an interracial couple.
“In an era when driving while black is dangerous, there are few things more pressing than this conversation,” she continued. “We don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel. We really want to keep talking about stuff that we’re incredibly passionate about and we think is important.”
UnREAL isn’t reality. It’s a soap opera—albeit a Peabody-winning one—about sex, cheating, eating disorders, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and, now, race. But in every heightened reality is the kernel of the real one. That’s what makes so much of how the producers flippantly manipulate and exploit race so hard to watch.
A black Bachelor, it seems, and the tensions that would expose, would be as horrifying as it is exciting. And, precisely because of that, necessary.