'UnREAL' Writers on Shocking Police Shooting Episode: "I Wish It Felt Dated by Now"

Unreal 207 - H 2016
Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Monday's UnREAL, episode 207, "Ambush."] 

When UnREAL’s Ariana Jackson sat down to write the second season’s boldest episode yet, she had no idea how timely it would become.

The episode, aptly titled "Ambush," includes a pivotal scene in which a police officer shoots one of the Lifetime drama’s most prominent black characters, Romeo (Gentry White), that is part of a season-long arc that examines race in today’s culture through the filter of Everlasting’s first black suitor. Two weeks before Ambush’s July 18 air date, however, an iteration of that fictional storyline played out in real time when two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were independently shot and killed by the police.

Lifetime executives 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, acknowledges she panicked when suddenly life was imitating art. “I definitely was like, ‘Oh shit'....  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.”

Jackson and Gertrude Shapiro spoke with THR about the decision to tackle race, the uncomfortable writers' room conversations that ensued and why (and how) they constructed Monday's shocking scene.

Sarah, take us back to the beginning of the season when you pitched the arc that centers on race. Why was it something that you wanted to tackle, and how was it received in the room?

Gertrude Shapiro: I came into the room and said that I was interested in having a black suitor, but I really wanted to open that up to the room to talk about how everyone felt about it -- and specifically how Ariana felt about it since she is a woman of color, she worked on the show for a season and I just deeply respect her. Part of it was that the issue of black bodies and black safety felt so pressing. Eric Garner was a watershed moment for me and for a lot of people: the documentation of this man, who was clearly not a threat to a single person, being murdered. A lot of these situations can get a little confusing and when there’s not documentation of it, it’s hard to visualize what actually happened -- but because there was a videotape with Eric Garner, it was just so clear that this person wasn’t a threat and that he was taken down anyway.

The other part from a writing standpoint was that Rachel (Shiri Appleby) was stuck in this job and desperate to make her life mean something and so in a very misguided Rachel way, this would be a perfect way to do that in a liberal, self-congratulatory, "I’m going to save the world" kind of way. She’s always talking about writing her novel and going to Africa -- all those white lady things. So I felt like it worked on two levels, but again, I really wanted everyone’s reactions to it, and I said, "I’m really scared and it makes me totally uncomfortable, but I think it’s worth doing." Where we landed as a room is that it’s better to do it than not do it, and it would be a shame to be too scared to do it.

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.

What was at the heart of the tension in those discussions?

Jackson: I don’t remember the exact moment that got tense or which things were uncomfortable, because we had a lot of that. (Laughs) But everybody was willing to be honest about what their viewpoints were, which was really important.

Gertrude Shapiro: We found this [five-minute] video that The New York Times did -- this op-ed video about white people talking about race. It’s a few minutes of people choking on their own spit, laughing, blinking awkwardly and stuttering. We watched it as a group as a bit of a tension clearer, and we were all like, "Okay, let’s just acknowledge that this is really, insanely uncomfortable right now and it’s super hard to have these conversations." Even as a person who felt like she had thought about stuff, my eyes were really opened. There was stuff that I learned about myself in terms of my privilege that I definitely hadn’t looked at before; I was aware that white feminism was complicated in relation to race, but I really hadn’t thought about the issues of black female beauty at that level.

What were some of the subjects you found yourselves debating? 

Gertrude Shapiro: There may have been some stuff when we talked about media portrayals of black men, which we did a lot. Ariana brought up this incredible thing – incredible horrible, that is -- that I had no idea about, which is that a lot of officers interviewed after these kinds of shootings have eerily similar ways of describing the black men they ended up shooting. They use words like "monster," "superhero," "animal." And so we were talking about the power of pictures on screen and that when, like, 80 percent of the pictures of black men used on screen are as gladiators, thugs and drug dealers, in that split second where police officers have to make a decision that someone is dangerous, those pictures are somewhere in their brains. There were some people in the room pushing back saying, "That’s how those men present themselves, they want to be threatening," and that was one of those moments where it was like, "Oh hell no, we need to talk about this."

Jackson: But going back to the beginning of the season, we presented Darius’ [B.J. Brit] character with the "Bitch, please" moment, as we call it. The idea that this guy has just come off the field, he’s literally like a modern-day gladiator and his whole job is just to go on the field and kill it, and he talks to a white reporter and he’s amped [and he says, "Bitch, please"] was obviously inspired by Richard Sherman and other events in the NFL. And it’s terrifying: all of a sudden, he’s intimidating this poor little white reporter and he’s this monster, and I think that’s how black men are presented in the media, so it’s hard to really untangle those kinds of images.

Gertrude Shapiro: And that’s why we choreographed the pullover in the episode the way we did -- that in a split second, a police officer who’s fearing for his life, when given the choice of a white woman [Rachel] running at him from a bush or a black man [Romeo] coming around a car, is always going to decide that the black man is more of a threat.

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.

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.