Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Unicorn gets topical with some help from director Matthew A. Cherry

Maya Lynne Robinson, Omar Miller, and Rob Corddry star in The Unicorn
Maya Lynne Robinson, Omar Miller, and Rob Corddry star in The Unicorn
Photo: Eric Voake/CBS
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Though its title implies a more solitary journey or singular focus, The Unicorn is very much an ensemble comedy. It’s not just his grief that Wade shares with his friends Ben, Michelle, Delia, and Forrest; virtually every aspect of his life is open to them (and their meddling). The show’s storylines frequently complement each other: Sometimes, as in the season-two premiere, multiple characters are looking for “the one”—person, college—while on other occasions, as with season one’s “No Small Parts,” a teen girl and a couple of middle-aged parents realize they’re out of their depth. Instead of branching out from the protagonist to secondary-character-specific episodes, The Unicorn usually moves the spotlight over the core group, finding moments for them all to shine in a given episode. The series’ themes aren’t solely encompassed by Wade’s story; loss is universal, as is the sense that you’re fumbling through life.

“It’s The Thought That Counts,” the third episode of season two, marks a bit of a departure for the series. It’s a more topical episode, and one in which it’s difficult to pin down which is the A story and which is the B story. Wade’s discovery of Shannon’s growing feelings toward him (and his delight at their escalation) bookends “It’s The Thought That Counts,” and his daughters’ “light cyberstalking” and astrology talk opens the episode. But it’s a breeze compared to what Forrest has to mull over throughout, which, in turn, pales in comparison to what Ben and Michelle have had to deal with all of their lives.

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This week, The Unicorn sets the table for a necessary, if brief discussion about the lived experiences of Black Americans. In a letter sent to critics, executive producers Mike Schiff and Bill Martin shared the series writers’ desire to somehow engage with the protests for racial equality that sprang up all over the world this summer, while avoiding putting out a “Very Special Episode.” Series star Omar Miller actually asked the team if they planned to address this latest phase in the civil rights movement, and writer Howard Jordan Jr. stepped up to the challenge with the idea for “It’s The Thought That Counts.” Oscar winner Matthew A. Cherry, who directed season one’s “Three Men Out,” returns to helm the episode, a lively installment full of insights, including a reminder that anti-racism work begins at home.

But first, Wade finds out his daughters are spying on Shannon via all manner of social media (including LinkedIn, where Natalie poses as a COO from Milwaukee). He’s grateful for their surveillance when they let slip that Shannon’s birthday is in two days, but he soon faces a dilemma—if he brings up her birthday, Shannon will wonder how he found out, and then he’ll have to tell her about the cyberstalking. Plus, such a personal occasion will probably accelerate the timeline of their relationship (take it from Delia, who believes the Presidents Day mattress sale is a minefield for new couples.) Michelle, ever gracious, advises Wade to simply follow Shannon’s lead; if she brings up her birthday, he can ask her what she wants to do. If she doesn’t mention it, he’s off the hook. But Wade isn’t really listening; he’s already mentally planning to buy Shannon a key lime tree.

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Natalie Zea and Walton Goggins
Photo: Eric Voake/CBS

The key lime tree is a hit, and not just with Shannon, who lied about not being a birthday person. Wade stumbles upon a party in full swing when he makes his delivery. But fear not, true believers in “Wade and Shannon OTP”—turns out, Shannon’s been raving about Wade to her friends, and now she’s embarrassed by her friends who are raving about Wade’s butt. The injury to his pride is minor and fleeting, and his connection to Shannon has deepened. It’s a sweet moment in a series of them for this new couple, who look, for now, to have a real shot. But Wade probably could have saved himself some trouble if he’d listened to Michelle at Sahai’s (Princess K. Mapp) birthday party in the opening moments.

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Michelle teases her friend for cutting her off, while Ben deals with Forrest, who shows up to the party with Foqus swag for the kids, including Noah, whom he gives a water gun. The ever-discerning Noah is actually impressed with the toy, because he’s never had one. And Forrest quickly learns why—for Black children like Noah, even holding a toy gun could have deadly consequences. Forrest’s initial reaction is disbelief, but as Ben tells him: “It’s not the color of the gun. It’s the color of my son.”

What comes next is uncomfortable for white people, especially well-meaning, middle-class white people—Forrest and even Delia realize their micro- and macroaggressions, though they struggle to distinguish between the two. Delia tries to reassure her husband about his gaffe, insisting that if an offense had really been committed, Michelle would have already talked to her about it. But what Delia doesn’t realize until later is that, despite their longstanding friendship, there are some things Michelle can’t really talk about with her white friends. When a horrified Delia asks Forrest, “Have I been making the same mistakes with Michelle all these years?,” it’s one of a few wake-up calls this episode.

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Cherry and Jordan Jr. take great care with this storyline, but they never forget to have fun. Forrest and Delia’s panic spills over into the next several days, as they try to prove they’re not “that kind of people” (the respectability-politics shoe is on the other foot here.) Delia is too flustered to even greet Michelle properly, and has to resort to getting her feelings out in an email. Forrest, meanwhile, tries to buy his way out of his mess by presenting Noah with a Nintendo Switch, which he pretends is actually a gift from Ben. As the apologies and the gestures pile up, the actual issue is lost. It’s not that Ben doesn’t want to let his son just be a kid; if anything, he and Michelle have had to make a superhuman effort to preserve Noah’s childhood in a racist, unjust world.

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Devin Bright
Photo: Eric Voake/CBS
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Michelle is both all too ready and much too tired to explain to Forrest where he went wrong—she’s already been through this with her study group, her daughter’s gymnastics class, and Delia. So Ben sits his friend down for a different version of “the talk,” telling Forrest that he’s “doing too much” to make up for his misstep. A rueful Forrest replies, “I don’t think I’m doing enough.” At this point, the self-flagellation is too much for Ben, not to mention Michelle, who pops over from the kitchen to remind Forrest that the inequities he is trying to get his head around have always been a part of their lived experience. Ben tells Forrest what he’s looking for isn’t help to un-learn something, but absolution: “You’re putting all your guilt on me because you want me to make you feel better about the things I have to deal with.” If it’s a difficult thing to hear, imagine how hard it is to say, even to people you’ve known half your life, who are like uncles and aunts to your children.

Even though Cherry cuts to Shannon’s birthday party and Wade’s disappointment-turned-elation throughout, Ben and Forrest’s talk is one of the lengthier and weightier scenes of the night. For Black viewers, the context of that conversation won’t be anything new, but there is hopefully some catharsis in Ben flat-out telling Forrest, who swears he wants to do better, “I cannot do your work for you.” Despite the 22-minute runtime, The Unicorn lets Forrest sit with his discomfort while highlighting Ben and Michelle’s graciousness (here and throughout their decade of friendship, it seems). It’s not entirely subtle, but “It’s The Thought That Counts” manages to hold an important conversation while keeping up its narrative balance. This isn’t a Very Special Episode, but it is a necessary one.

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Stray observations

  • Delia getting frustrated by the astrology talk at the top of the episode is me about five years ago, until I remembered to just let other people have their fun.
  • “Most serial killers are Scorpios.” Good thing it’s now Sagittarius season then?
  • I do think the Ben-Noah-Forrest story is this week’s A story, even though The Unicorn once again manages to spread the love to all its cast members.
  • “Listen.” “Believe us.” Howard Jordan Jr. doesn’t mince words.
  • Even though Forrest is given a lot of space to learn, the balance still tips toward Ben and Michelle, which keeps “It’s The Thought That Counts” from coming across as a hand-holding lesson rather than incisive commentary.
  • Glad Devin Bright was in the spotlight tonight. The way Noah gushes that the Nintendo Switch is “[his] father’s love” is both hilarious and charming.
  • Delia chasing after Michelle to tell her she needs to read White Fragility, followed by Michelle’s disbelieving “Why would I read that?,” is easily the funniest moment of the night. Until Delia tries to answer Michelle’s question.
  • “Did she say ‘Black’ or ‘back’?” “B-l-a-c-k.” “See, I knew you had to spell it.”
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