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Netflix's Unbelievable feels refreshing in the way it skips sensationalism

  • The Netflix drama starring Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever and Toni Collette eschews dramatic twists and turns for a much more grounded narrative, says Krutika Mallikarjuna. "There are no sweeping monologues about what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated field, particularly one that's especially weighted against women," she says. "Rather, it's (Wever and Collette's detective characters') steady determination and commitment to the investigation that demands their colleagues' (and the audience's) respect. Every single aspect of the show is infused with the same energy. To some it will feel like a slow grind to watch these two women deal with the tedium of police work. But it's exactly this slow and inevitable build to the show's cathartic conclusion that makes Unbelievable such a satisfying binge. Unlike other crime shows that center around soap opera-style reveals and Reddit deep dives, Unbelievable centers first and foremost on the experiences of its female characters." She adds: "Though the real-life crimes that inspired this series played out well before the #MeToo movement gained international attention, Unbelievable is perhaps one of the best encapsulations of the rage, fear, trauma, and blinding determination that sparked this movement."


    • Unbelievable's feminist approach to crime-drama storytelling almost feels insurgent: "The most standout aspect of Unbelievable ... is that it shines light on survivors and heroes, rather than dwelling upon the psyches of perpetrators of violent crimes," says Kimberly Ricci. "That’s definitely a notable approach, right after the release of a Mindhunter season, along with several recent projects devoted to the celebrity of Ted Bundy and charisma of Charles Manson. As entertaining as those projects have been, Unbelievable almost feels insurgent in comparison. It’s a feminist approach to crime-drama storytelling, but the series never feels preachy or heavy-handed in its execution. Flashbacks occur as they are necessary, and any perpetrator’s methods are acknowledged but not admired. The details might be triggering, but the focus sits upon the lingering outcome of these crimes. The reality that Unbelievable confronts is that the aftermath of sexual assault can be as traumatic (or moreso) than the attacks themselves. Admittedly, this sounds god-awful as viewing material, but the resulting watchability is only one way that the series turns assumptions upon their heads."
    • Unbelievable looks and sounds too often like a remake of Top of the Lake by Wikipedia: "The creators’ efforts to reinvent and educate are also frequently undercut by a journalistic dryness—I lost count of the number of times that Wever and Collette spout statistics at each other about, say, the rate of domestic violence among male police officers. (It’s 40 percent.)," says Inkoo Kang. "Lisa Cholodenko’s direction of the first three episodes fails to endow the show with anything resembling visual flair (expect lots of grim grays), adding to the aura of well-meaning gracelessness."
    • Unbelievable avoids pedantry and “men bad, women good” generalizations: "Grace and Karen make plenty of mistakes, and the male detectives who investigate Marie’s case aren’t painted as villains — they are generally decent cops with blind spots, much like the system they work for," says Kristen Baldwin. "It is not a spoiler to say that watching Unbelievable is an extremely satisfying experience — not just for its storytelling, but for its depiction of women who confront their reality rather than succumbing to it."
    • Even as Unbelievable hits familiar beats, it never loses its resonance: "Unbelievable never quite breaks the procedural/crime drama mold; its detectives are equally prone to staring at a photograph-covered whiteboard and intoning softly about how they’re letting everyone down," says Danette Chavez. "The dialogue is just as heavy-handed about passing along stats about sexual-assault reporting as any episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But its strength of focus keeps even the more formulaic parts from becoming stale. The series is just as invested in how survivors cope—and the socially acceptable ways in which to do so—as it is in how law enforcement can let them down."
    • Unbelievable succeeds by focusing on the grey area of its title: "Unbelievable could have ended up a nasty, voyeuristic program full of gratuitous violence," says Hannah J. Davies. "Sexual assault, after all, isn’t something TV always deals with sensitively – just look at Game of Thrones, where rape, particularly that of Sansa Stark, sparked outrage from viewers and even a US senator. Or it could’ve been another drab procedural, heavy on cliches borrowed from a thousand crime stories before it. Thankfully, it manages to find another way, by focusing on the grey area of its title – showing the propensity for those around Adler to assume her guilt from the outset, and to marry her 'acting out' with the rape allegation."
    • Rarely have dramas interrogated the aftereffects of sexual trauma; even more rarely have they tackled the topic without eventually sidelining it
    • Unbelievable features an embarrassment of riches both in front of and behind the camera
    • How a ProPublica Pulitzer-winning investigation titled "An Unbelieveable Story of Rape" was turned into Unbelievable
    • How the #MeToo movement influenced Unbelievable: "“We started working on this two years ago, and it was obviously relevant and had been, unfortunately, for centuries, but then suddenly the material, and this story in particular, felt like it completely coincided with this wave of consciousness about this subject," says executive producer Sarah Timberman.
    • Merritt Wever hates talking about herself: She is adamant that her Detective Duvall is not the lead of Unbelievable
    • Kaitlyn Dever calls Unbelievable her most challenging role: "I have to say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career, the hardest project I’ve ever done, just because I was putting myself in these emotional spaces every single day for three to four months," she says. "But I can’t really compare it to what these people went through in real life. It’s not even close to what they went through. I have to make sure I say that because it’s really unimaginable what these people go through. It was definitely emotional, but at the end of the day, I was able to come out of it and go home. We were shooting in LA, so I was able to go to my house and say hi to my family."

    TOPICS: Unbelievable, Netflix, Ayelet Waldman, Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, Michael Chabon, Sarah Timberman, Susannah Grant, Toni Collette