Better Late Than Never: Unbelievable Review
Even in the era of binge watching, there are some TV shows that no matter how brilliantly put together, one just can’t imagine watching them in one swoop. Several of the prime examples have come this year. HBO’s Chernobyl and Netflix’s When They See Us were two of the most extraordinary works of television in a while. But the subject matter was so bleak, so depressing and so unsettling that it was nearly impossible for me to watch them all in one swoop. When They See Us in particular took me five weeks to watch all four episodes; despite the great level of the performances and the writing and direction, it was just so bleak and unrelenting that you needed a shower when it was over.
A couple of months ago, Unbelievable dropped on Netflix. Despite the enormous acclaim and the fact that it has two of my favorite actresses in the leads, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it initially. Part of it was the buildup of other series, but mostly it was the unflinching darkness of the subject that left me cold. I had a feeling that it would be one of those experience you admired rather than enjoyed. After the Golden Globes and Critics Choice awards gave it several nominations, I knew the time had come. And having seen the first two episodes, I know it’s going to be another one of those fascinating series. The subject matter is unbearable, and yet you can not look away.
The first episode deals with the report of a rape by a victim who the series has only identified as ‘Marie’ played by Kaitlyn Dever, in what will automatically be a performance to be at forefront of the Emmy race. Marie is a child who’s come from a series of bad foster homes and a horrible family situation. When she reports that she has been raped, the entire process takes on a dark aspect. Marie can’t tell her story straight to the police officers investigating. She tells four different versions to three different people. When one of her fosters (Elizabeth Marvel) reports it to the police, the inconsistencies start immediately. Then her attitude keeps getting stranger. She wants to go back to her apartment. She argues with a store clerk about getting something that she knows is in stock. Her foster hears and thinks she might be exaggerated. When the police call her back in, she retracts her original statement — and then, retracts the retraction. By the time, it’s all over the police are utterly fed up with her, angry that she’s wasted their time. The retraction causes ripples throughout her life, and causes restrictions on how she lives her life and how her former fosters view her. And despite all that, she still seems inscrutable. While its clear the police procedure was brutal to her — she had to tell her story four times before she was allowed to rest — one can sympathize with how the police viewed her. Dever goes out of her way to make her character unsympathetic initially, which is a very hard act to pull given the situation.
The second episode takes place is Golden, Colorado three years later. Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever, continuing her hot streak on big and small screen) is called into investigate a sexual assault. Her approach is totally different from Marie’s. She is instantly sympathetic to the victim, always tries to put her at ease, is given complete autonomy by the police, and never shows the slightest doubt in the victim. The crime is nearly as unspeakable as the first one, with the victim’s clear statement as to how polite he seemed and how sure she is this wasn’t his first one. She keeps moving steadily, and returns home to talk to her fellow detective husband and father of her children. Only after everything that has happened does she vent about how hideous the perpetrator is, and how brave the victim is for what she is doing. Her husband then mentions a similar case that brings in the other detective — Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette)
A couple of obvious comparisons came to me in the first two episodes. First, in the simple approach of how things are done just how much procedural porn the work of Dick Wolf is in comparison, particularly in Law and Order: SVU and Chicago PD. One can’t imagine Olivia Benson existing in the world here, even though so many of their stories are ‘ripped from the headlines’. The more likely comparison is American Crime, which was as well acted, written and directed, but not quite as hard to watch as this series is. Lisa Chodenko, a brilliant independent film director who, like so many, has migrated to television is quietly and understated in her approach. The performances are exquisitely crafted, and like that previous series, the best are female. But I have a feeling that this will be another series that more tune to do out of obligation then desire to watch. It’s exceptional, but I seriously doubt that anyone will want to binge watch it.
Perhaps the only laughs that will come will when you see this is a production of a company called ‘Escapist Fare’. This is a series drawn from a real-life event, executive produced by This American Life and Katie Couric. It is anything but escapist. But it needs to be seen.
My score: 4.5 stars.