What can we glean from the fact that so many of this year’s best dramas are based on relatively recent tragic events? HBO has already given us “Chernobyl” and “Our Boys,” about the 1986 nuclear disaster and 2014 murder of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir, respectively.
And less than four months after depressing the hell out of us (in a good way) with “When They See Us,” based on the infamous miscarriage of justice concerning the Central Park Five, Netflix now gives us the equally brilliant “Unbelievable.” (Oh, and then there’s season three of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which continues to depict events in Trumplandia to such chilling effect.)
Everything you need to know about “Unbelievable” was actually articulated three years ago in the episode of podcast/radio program “This American Life,” upon which Netflix’s eight-part show is based (along with the December 2015 ProPublica and Marshall Project article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”).
“This is about two very different police investigations,” explained narrator Ira Glass. “One of them is done so inspiringly well it’s like the detectives in it are like detectives in a television show: smart, resourceful and great judgment; just police at their very best. The other case — the same crime, lots of the same facts — is the opposite.”
Like many others, I’m sure, I was initially reluctant to watch “Unbelievable.” For starters, there was the grim-sounding subject matter: two cops pursuing a serial rapist. Not exactly a “pass the popcorn” evening. Worse, there was pretty much every single previous film or show ever made about serial rapists. At best, these have been guilty of almost mythologizing monsters and forgetting the victims, and at worst, guilty of serving up titillation, voyeurism and how-to guides for wannabe rapists.
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The very worst offender? The BBC’s “The Fall,” with model-turned-actor Jamie Dornan as a chiselled family man who just happens to be a predator who tortures and sexually abuses women.
So, it was only when the rave reviews for “Unbelievable” started pouring in that I relented. Even then, I thought I would ration my viewings, lest the subject matter prove too much. After all, if I want eight hours of sordidness and depravity, I can always switch on Fox News.
But then, about 10 hours after I had started watching, I found myself finishing episode eight, completely overwhelmed by the humanity, intelligence and warmth of this brilliant show.
Where shows like “The Fall” fail because they, well, fall under the spell of the attacker, “Unbelievable” focuses solely on the people who matter: the victims and the people fighting to prevent the next attack. This show isn’t concerned with the modus operandi of a rapist or what or who made them what they are. Instead, it cares about why victims aren’t believed, why the crimes aren’t treated with the same gravity as other serious offenses, and why male police officers themselves are part of the problem.
The critics are pretty much united in their love of “Unbelievable,” so I’ll keep my eulogizing brief with five points about the show:
1. The first two episodes are bleak and very unsettling, but after that the show focuses on the heroic-but-believable female detectives at the heart of the investigation. The series also develops a surprisingly sharp sense of humor, which is not what you might have expected at the outset.
2. Kaitlyn Dever is going to be a star. Fresh from appearing with Elizabeth “Beanie” Feldstein in the best comedy of the year (“Booksmart”), she is unbelievably brilliant here as Marie Adler, the teenager whose shitty childhood only gets worse as she hits adulthood. Memo to Dever: Do not sack your agent; they are getting you amazing roles.
3. Why am I not more familiar with Merritt Wever? She’s been in a lot of films and shows I’ve seen (most notably as Denise, the doctor, in “The Walking Dead”), but nothing prepared me for how superb she is here as empathetic Colorado Det. Karen Duvall — a God-fearing cop and mom who never loses faith in her own abilities. What’s most refreshing is that Duvall’s character’s Christianity is simply part of what makes her tick, not the be-all and end-all (although I did love the Post-It on her car dashboard, featuring a quote from Isaiah 6:8 and her message to God: “Here I am; send me”).
4. It takes a certain type of show to withhold its star player until a quarter of the way through the series, but that’s what “Unbelievable” does with Toni Collette. Still, she makes up for lost time in the remaining six episodes, creating in Det. Grace Rasmussen perhaps my favorite TV cop since Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson in season one of “Fargo.” Whether cussing her way through team meetings or driving her fabulously gold-colored pickup, Collette is a mesmeric presence. Now, finally, after 25 long years, I can stop having the words “You’re terrible, Muriel!” in my head every time I see the actress on screen (thanks, “Muriel’s Wedding”), and can replace them with one of the many memorable phrases she spits out in “Unbelievable” — like her description of a male suspect being “an asshole, just not our asshole.”
5. So much about “Unbelievable” is praiseworthy, but special mention should go to creators Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman for their scripts. (Grant and the husband-and-wife novelists team both separately wanted to make the show, and it was a very happy union that they were paired on it to such good effect). Netflix has a bad habit of padding out its shows, but there is literally not a second wasted here. Even seemingly incidental characters get great scenes, demonization is avoided and, best of all, the show manages to provoke outrage by simply presenting the facts and letting the viewer do the rest.
If we really must have so many horrible real-life events in the world, then at least let the subsequent dramatizations be as good as this one.
When crime pays
Whoever said crime doesn’t pay clearly never told Netflix, because in addition to “Unbelievable” and last month’s second season of “Mindhunter,” the streaming giant also just released “Criminal.”
The format’s the thing here, as four different countries take the idea of an interrogation scene in a police station, and create their own characters and dramas from it. The only constant in each version – each featuring three 45-minute episodes – is the set itself. The countries where the four shows are set are the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain, yet, ironically, the weakest version comes from the very people who came up with the concept: British director Jim Field Smith and writer George Kay.
And despite being by some stretch the weakest of the four shows, the U.K. version will probably be the most watched — thanks to the presence of David Tennant and Hayley Atwell as the suspects being grilled in the first two episodes. Sadly, these are merely thinly veiled excuses for the actors to raid the “emotions” dress-up box and show us their acting chops. It feels like an audition tape by an overenthusiastic actor who has been between jobs for too long.
My advice would be to skip the British version and watch the French, German and Spanish shows instead (in that order). All three episodes of the French version are excellent (I was particularly gripped by the first one, about someone being investigated for potentially lying about being at the Bataclan terror attack on November 13, 2015, and the third, about a brutal attack on a gay man). Even better, the five investigators in this Paris police station are all interesting characters you want to learn more about, especially given their own personal ambitions.
I also really enjoyed the Berlin-set German episodes, especially after I got used to the somewhat overstated performance by Sylvester Groth (from “Dark”) as the senior male investigator.
The opening episode features an enjoyably twisty plot based around the reunification of Germany at the end of the 1980s. And if Tennant and Atwell want to see some real acting chops, they should check out Nina Hoss in the final episode as Claudia, a serial killer’s wife and accomplice. I’ve loved Hoss’ work in other shows (including “Homeland”), but didn’t even recognize her here. Now that’s what I call acting.