Wednesday, September 11, 2019

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Unbelievable'

Netflix will launch its new original limited series Unbelievable on Friday, September 13. The series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever.

Read on for my thoughts on the new limited series after screening its entire eight-episode season.

Netflix's new limited series Unbelievable features emboldened and powerfully complex stories about a host of women going through some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. The subject matter at the heart of the show may seem bleak and depressing to some. At its core, the show is an investigation into a serial rapist who has abused many women across multiple states. But it's more than just the latest prestige series that revels in the misery of it all. It reflects on a wide array of emotions. Sure, there are absolutely moments of pure brutality that are hard to sit through. It may not make for the easiest of binges. After some episodes, viewers may have to take a break in order to decompress. And yet, there is a wonderfully propulsive energy to the proceedings that makes sure that everyone is taken care of with the respect and dignity that they deserve. It's a story that uplifts and supports victims. So often, their stories aren't heard. They simply become a part of the story or plot but not necessarily the focus. Instead, it's all about the macho investigators who ask horrifying questions because they fundamentally don't understand the power dynamics between the genders. This show takes a step back to analyze what it means to live in a male-dominated world. But it also empowers women to be as confident and bold as they should be. They have to be comfortable in their own skin because that is beautiful and remarkable. It's a show about female empowerment and representation. The main detectives leading the charge of the narrative could easily be seen as stock character tropes typically played by men. It's a revolutionary act to see them played by women and to such wondrous applaud by Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever. It's simultaneously a buddy cop story as well as one that has immense care and consideration for the wide range of reactions experienced by the people abused by the horrors of the world.

The narrative is actually split up into two distinct parts. In fact, it may seem as if there are two shows operating at the same time within the limited series instead of two stories that compliment each other. The parallels are striking. But for most of the eight episodes, it's fundamentally about the themes that connect women across the world - even those who never interact. The premiere is the most brutal and lengthy episode of the season. It's an hourlong showcase for Kaitlyn Dever who has always been reliably great - from FX's Justified to earlier this year in the film Booksmart. Dever plays Marie Adler, a young adult fresh out of the foster care system who is struggling to find independence after never having a stable environment to grow and learn. She is raped by an intruder in her apartment one night. She promptly reports it to the police. And yet, the investigators eventually contort and belittle the narrative to the point where Marie wonders if it truly happened at all. It's such delicate work that paints a stark portrait of the failings of the criminal justice system. It's easier to believe that none of this has happened. It's completely delusional and harmful though. The rest of the season tracks how Marie recanting her story ultimately has grave and severe consequences for her. It alienates her from the rest of her life. The ongoing trauma she endures gives Dever such phenomenal material to work with as she becomes a woman scared to say what's going on with her as she fears the reaction will be so much worse than the actual trauma. It's stark and gripping to watch. In a completely different state, local detectives Grace Rasmussen (Collette) and Karen Duvall (Wever) eventually find their way to each other and start up a task force investigating a case of an apparent serial rapist. They are determined to catch this guy and find justice for his victims. They clash in style as well. Grace is the more standoffish type who has many years on the job and knows what to expect. Her cynicism closes her off from expecting a lot. Meanwhile, Karen is a calm-natured young detective who has so much compassionate and consideration for the victims. Her dogged determination is fearless despite the toil it clearly weighs on her. These are two women who compliment each other and rely on each other as the case develops. One where the support is necessary. But the freedom to express their frustrations at a system that seems well poised to keep them from making an arrest is just as needed. The show gives everyone their due to tell their specific story in a world where their lives have always traditionally been seen as small.

That's what makes Unbelievable such compelling television. It's a show that has a purpose and knows that it needs to provide these women with the stories they have long been deserving of. Collette and Wever are acclaimed actresses. But they typically don't get offers for these meaty leading roles. Dever is having a serious breakout this year. This is the kind of show that should be the standard of material offered to her. It shouldn't be a simple blip on the radar. That's what the entire ensemble deserves as well. Danielle Macdonald, Elizabeth Marvel, Bridget Everett, Eric Lange, Dale Dickey, Liza Lapira and Annaleigh Ashford further enhance the proceedings. Their characters' diverging perspectives on the various cases being investigated are vital and compelling. Some of them are full of outrage and indignation. Others are convinced that they just need to be loving and nurturing enough to make the world a better place. Optimism and cynicism are both given valid places in this world. It's ultimately a journey. One that reflects the true sense of hopelessness that is all too frequent. But the determination to produce stories like this proves that not all hope is lost. Again, this is a show that people should support and celebrate. Collette, Wever and Dever should all be considered Emmy contenders a year from now. Susannah Grant and Lisa Cholodenko set a strong template both on the page and behind the camera. This series should be fundamentally be seen as inspirational. Even if the story seems conventional at times, there is so much just lurking underneath the surface of any woman in this world. They all have such strong and fulfilling stories to tell.