[Note: The following reveals major plot points of Orange Is The New Black and UnREAL.]
The Black Lives Matter movement has become an evergreen topic due to the utter lack of progress, like any national conversation connected to the broader debate about gun control. Given that prominent conservative politicians, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, continue referring to BLM as a “terrorist organization” following fatal attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, there’s unlike to be any movement on the issue any time soon. Despite the clear statistical disparities between police-involved shootings of African-Americans and those of other races, there’s still disagreement over the validity of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” to say nothing of the tragedies that led to its creation.
Unsurprisingly, the national uproar over racial bias in the criminal justice system has become an irresistible topic for scripted television, a medium nimble enough to react to the news and one unbound by the real-world limitations of contentious debate. Last year, Scandal put forth “The Lawn Chair,” a riff on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, not long after The Good Wife presented “The Debate,” in which Chicago threatens to devolve into riots as the city awaits the outcome of a police brutality prosecution. More recently, Orange Is The New Black built its fourth season around the tragic death of beloved character Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) at the hands of an inept corrections officer, while UnREAL tackled the issue in this week’s “Ambush,” in which a black man ends up shot by police in an altercation contrived by reality TV producers. With each new episodic foray into police brutality against the black community comes another debate over the wisdom of mining this especially sensitive topic for scripted television.
Television episodes about anti-black police violence have been received with increased scrutiny and skepticism the longer the issue remains at the forefront of the public consciousness, and rightfully so. The A.V. Club’s Ashley Ray-Harris wrote an excellent dissection of Orange’s fourth season, arguing that the show minimized Poussey’s death by focusing on, and preemptively acquitting, the perpetrator. Gwen Ihnat was slightly more forgiving in her episodic review of UnREAL, but only slightly. She lauded, in principal, showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s desire to bring gravity to the show’s exploration of race, but lamented the tone-deaf execution. Like the complaints against Orange, the criticism is focused on how the show uses the suffering of black characters to frame the behaviors and motivations of white ones.
My reactions to these episodes, both as a television critic and a black man, has differed depending on the episode. In my review of Scandal’s “The Lawn Chair,” I declined to give the episode a letter grade because I was so torn between the goal the show was trying to accomplish versus how well the episode accomplished it. The comments on the piece—some of which attacked me for failing to present my feelings about the episode in unambiguous terms—reflected a wide range of opinions on the episode, a trend that didn’t cut neatly across racial lines. “The Lawn Chair” left me cold in part because it ended with the prosecution of a corrupt, racist police officer and the introduction of legislation to increase police oversight, a tidy conclusion that doesn’t track with the actual justice-free aftermath of these tragedies.
I couldn’t have been more disappointed with UnREAL’s “Ambush,” which reduced the police-involved shooting of an unarmed black man to the latest chapter of the inconsequential power struggle between Rachel (Shiri Appleby), Coleman (Michael Rady), and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the white producers of a Bachelor-style reality dating competition. As I’ve written in the past, the biggest issue with UnREAL is the holier-than-thou way it depicts the manipulation inherent to reality television while manipulating its audience in a way The Bachelor would never dream of. Last season built to a contestant’s suicide, while this season uses the police shooting as just the latest example of the crazy behind-the-scenes drama at Everlasting and makes no effort to engage with a topic that has resulted in so much real pain for real people. Everlasting’s producers have proudly crowed about how this year’s prince (B.J. Britt) is the show’s first black suitor, but neither the real series or the fictional one have done much to extrapolate on the potential of this situation.
On the other hand, I disagreed with most of Ashley’s takedown of OITNB, though I completely understand the raw emotions that have left her and others disappointed and frustrated with the show. In fact, the way the show dealt with Poussey’s death was a major consideration in my full-throated praise of the fourth season. I didn’t feel like the show acquitted Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), the goofy, guileless correctional officer whose negligence resulted in Poussey’s death. I thought it held him responsible for her death, and by highlighting his early life as a well-intentioned screwup, the episode demonstrated that lots of people who think of themselves as “nice guys” wind up responsible for horrific evil despite an absence of actual malice. The same can be said for the prison’s warden Caputo (Nick Sandow), who is only willing to stand up for the human rights of the prisoners under his watch until it threatens his professional standing within a for-profit prison company. Bayley and Caputo’s actions leave them with blood on their hands, as is the case in real life with the “good” police officers who shield the bad ones from accountability.
Part of Ashley’s negative response to OITNB stems from the lack of black representation in the show’s creative team, which is a fair criticism considering the diversity of the characters far outstrips that of the OITNB writers’ room. But of the scripted shows to try incorporating the Black Lives Matter debate, OITNB has been the most successful of them. Meanwhile, both “The Lawn Chair” and “Ambush” were penned by African-American writers (Zahir McGhee and Ariana Jackson, respectively) and cobbled together in writers’ rooms that look like America. By rights, OITNB shouldn’t be at the top of this dubious heap, but it did the best job of fictionalizing Black Lives Matter simply by virtue of a narrative framework that lends itself well to a discussion about the dysfunction of the criminal justice system. Shoehorning the subject into nighttime soaps about a lovelorn Washington, D.C. fixer and a bipolar reality TV producer will be unavoidably clumsy no matter who’s manning the keyboard.
With every new dashcam or cellphone video of the senseless killing of an unarmed person, the less heroic and daring a ripped-from-the-headlines fictionalization of such events becomes. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, Twitter, and the proliferation of opinion-as-news, there’s no longer a need to plug into the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist plugs into you. The “very special episode” once had the power to spark national conversations, back when Maude was wrestling with an unwanted pregnancy or Arnold and Dudley were being groomed by a pedophile on Diff’rent Strokes. Scripted television is no longer in the position to lead the conversation around social issues, and as a result, the benefit to delving into those issues less frequently outweighs the risk of salting an open wound.
This is especially the case with Black Lives Matter, a conversation that remains unripe for fictional exploration because there’s been so little advancement around the issue in real life. The same can be said of the gun control debate, which is why an episode like Sons Of Anarchy’s “Straw” (which ends with a mass shooting at an elementary school) attracts the same level of scrutiny. Compare the reaction to the most controversial episodes of 24, in which counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) gets the intel he needs to stop domestic terror attacks because he has the fortitude to torture suspects. Those episodes regularly caused a stink during 24’s run, but only because the intelligence community had largely coalesced around the idea that torture is an ineffective means of getting leads. Before scripted television is able to make a dent in the public consciousness, there has to be some level of consensus around the topic at hand. In 24’s heyday, there was agreement that anti-Western terrorism was a scourge that needs to be eliminated and there might be a price too great to pay for eliminating it.
Unfortunately, no such consensus exists around the Black Lives Matter movement, so any scripted television show that incorporates it is bound to fail. (The sole exception is the Black-ish episode “Hope,” which focuses squarely on how the issue affects a black family irrespective of the details of the case.) Even OITNB, which did the best job of rendering the issue, falls short because it gives equal time to all the characters, when the weight of the issue at hand isn’t carried equally. Scripted stories about police-involved shootings of black people have to show the impact of the events on everyone around them, even though they affect everyone’s lives differently. Therefore, any scripted take on BLM is bound to look like All Lives Matter: The TV Show. Television still has the power, albeit diminished, to shape the public discourse. But the only way scripted shows can effectively present the problem is for the audience to first agree that the problem exists.