The “very special” episode of any sitcom is a relic of days past, forever relegated to our favorite shows that have passed into syndication heaven (or Hell, depending on your perspective). It is, however, arguably ill-conceived to shoot new sitcom episodes in 2020 while completely disregarding the many topical issues the year has wrought.
Such was the mindset of the cast and writers of CBS’s “The Unicorn”, which filmed part of its second season in the summer of 2020, during an unprecedented social uprising as a result of the death of George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin. “Unicorn” star Omar Miller asked the writer’s room if they had any plans to address the protests, to which writer Howard Jordan, Jr., who is Black, pitched his concept: White people facing their privilege while also working towards a better understanding of their allyship for their Black friends.
Not only was the topic greenlit, but producers asked Matthew Cherry to return to the director’s chair after helming an episode of the pilot season. A former NFL player turned film writer, director and producer, Cherry nabbed an Academy Award for his Issa Rae-voiced 2019 animated short film Hair Love, which is being converted into a miniseries for HBO.
Cherry talked to BET.com about his experiences directing the episode (which aired Thursday, Dec. 3) and how the subject matter connects so poignantly to his own upbringing.
BET.com: Do you think you were chosen to do this episode because you’re Black?
Matthew Cherry: Oftentimes, directors don't have much say in what episodes we’re assigned to, but I do think on the producer side of things, they’re always thinking of people with certain sensibilities who can bring things to the table. Omar (Miller) [who plays Ben] and Maya Lynne (Robinson) [who plays Michelle] are good friends of mine, and, knowing that this was going to be a bit of a sensitive topic, I think it just made sense that this was the episode this season that I ended up directing.
BET.com: In this episode called, “It’s The Thought That Counts,” the central conflict involves Forrest (played by Rob Corddry) gifting a water gun to Noah (played by Devin Bright), and Noah’s parents’ concern about their adolescent Black son possessing anything resembling a gun. Have you ever endured any situations similar to this?
Matthew Cherry: I remember one situation in particular: I played three sports for a high school called Loyola Academy (in the Chicago suburbs). I trained in the summer to play these sports all year long. I was jogging in the neighborhood that I lived in all my life wearing athletic gear, and someone actually called the police. I had to be like 13, 14 years old, like any Black kid wearing athletic gear and weird shoes, and for whatever reason people saw that as a threat. Luckily nothing bad came out of it, but it was definitely one of those reminders. I think Howard and the writer's room really did a great job of taking a real-life issue and putting some candy with the medicine, since there are light moments [in the episode] as well.
BET.com: Have you seen any other sitcoms successfully tackling this material, Black writers or not?
Matthew Cherry: The conversation about being a proper ally is one that I haven't seen really tackled in the television space, which is why this episode was so exciting, especially given some networks are not as likely to take a big swing on something like this. It’s really cool that CBS and everyone in the studio was behind having this real conversation. Obviously there are certain nuances that I and people like Howard can bring to the table to increase the authenticity. Hopefully, topics can be explored from writers of all colors, ethnicities and sexual orientations and everything in between. They can't all just be coming from one lens.
BET.com: Is it a challenge to approach this topical material without coming off as preachy?
Matthew Cherry: In this particular episode, we’re dealing with an issue very specific to the Black experience. But these are all human conversations; in a future episode, it could be something Rob and Michaela’s (Watkins) characters are dealing with that they need to bring Omar and Maya Lynne’s characters in on. You just tell the story and recognize that there’s an important conversation to be had.
When we were shooting, there were real emotions that were coming up; when I see that, I want to give the actors the freedom to really go there and to not keep doing take after take as that stays bottled up. In the final cut of the episode, we used the takes where we gave Maya Lynne the freedom to add her personal experiences [to the dialogue]. It made it much more authentic. When you’re dealing with authentic human emotions and experiences, I don’t think there’s any such thing as preachy.
Watch this episode of The Unicorn on CBS.com and catch future episodes on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST/8:30 p.m. C on CBS.