Illustration Credit – Jennifer Heuer
Remember when the most difficult decision a couple could make was where to go for dinner? In 2019 the cultural consciousness has replaced that old timey dilemma with “what are we going to watch while eating dinner?”
Full disclosure – I just finished watching Unbelievable, the 8 episode Netflix miniseries and I couldn’t be more… what’s that word… starts with a W… everybody is using it… never-mind. I couldn’t be more “slightly stunned.” I say that because the show manages to be socially conscious on every single level without braggadocio, without effort, and without consequence. Right after the series finale, and after I wiped my tears and caught my breath, I asked out loud, “do they have any idea what they’ve just done?”
Unbelievable is a miniseries on Netflix based on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a 2015 non-profit news article about Colorado and Washington serial rape cases. The article was a collaboration between The Marshall Project and ProPublica and was written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller. This important piece of work won the 2015 George Polk award for Justice Reporting and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. In addition, Episode #581 of This American Life chronicled the the story in 2 acts and a prologue and for its effort won The Peabody Award in 2016.
The story begins in 2008 in Washington a few hours after the rape of Marie, a young adult living in subsidized housing designed to help those transition from the foster-care system to literal adulthood. Marie begins her quest to report her rape and all of its precise and unique details and get help, only to run into a brick wall of male ambivalence and belittling disbelief. In other words, the rape systematically continues. At one point in the show a character makes a profound point when he states, “no one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying, or someone who says he was carjacked. Doesn’t happen. But when it comes to sexual assault…” This is what begins the secondary trauma of what it means to be a rape victim. Marie is not only accused of lying after narrative inconsistencies are exposed, but she is encouraged to stick to that predetermined conclusion reached by the two male detectives, one who seems decent but aloof, and the other a misogynistic throwback. The impeccably humane and methodical show then marches us to Colorado in 2011. A college student reports her rape to police and we are struck by the same precise and unique details of Marie’s recanted rape. The narrative of the similar rapes is disturbing. At one point in the show Marie is mandated to counseling and in a moment of therapeutic joining the counselor says, “you know what I think, I think no one would make up that story.” Marie then sits in disbelief at simply being heard, and at this point, we are deep into the story. The counselor is played with precision by Brooke Smith from Silence of the Lambs. The 2011 narrative introduces us to a multitude of victims and the two female detectives that will work this case to the bone or wither away trying. The show is so remarkably laser focused on communicating its larger point, which is the very reason it exists, that it completely leaves alone all the pieces and parts to simply “be,” and they do so exquisitely and genuinely. The larger point? Probably the most sublime character in the story remarks to Marie, “by the way, just let me say… what happened to you should not happen to anyone, ever.”
The show itself manages to accomplish several lofty endeavors and it does so without trying. This I cannot say enough. Maybe it was intentional, or maybe the show was so properly distracted that it never once got in its own way. I felt so refreshed by the whole thing. I work as a Licensed Professional Counselor and Psychotherapist and I work with trauma and those victimized by its persistence, cunning, and devastation. I frequently encounter victims of rape so when I say “refreshed,” I’m saying I appreciate the exposure and attention.
As I began watching this show I simultaneously began to notice something different. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it but then I noticed I was calling out seemingly small things that ultimately culminated into a very strong opinion. The three female leads, Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler, Toni Collette as Detective Grace Rasmussen, and Merritt Wever as Detective Karen Duvall. Dever, who was incredible in Justified, Booksmart, and Uncharted 4, was precise and on cue as she wove in and out of telling the truth and lying about telling the truth. Dever also gives us a portrait of victimhood that ended up being cathartic for the actual Marie Adler. Toni Collette was as incredible as she has ever been and in this role I believe she was the reluctant mentor on and off the screen. Merritt Wever as Duvall was a revelation in this role. I think it’s the performance of a lifetime. Every second of her screen time was nuanced, from her shifting vocal tone when talking to victims to her mirandizing the rapist. Wever was mesmerizing. I commented to my wife how awesome it was to see three female leads owning the screen. Then came Dale Dickey as RoseMarie. Dickey was as haunting as ever in Justified and in the grossly underrated Winter’s Bone. I commented to my wife how nice it was to see her playing a strong female police analyst with a complex role and a fair amount of screen time, instead of the white trash, meth loving, murder momma, who always has it coming. Then I noticed a few more females rounding out the investigative team. In fact, there were women everywhere. I then remarked how cool I thought the intern was on the team played by Omar Maskati. He had great insight and they treated him like a human being. Also refreshing. At this point we meet the husbands of the detectives, Kai Lennox as Steve Rasmussen and Austin Hébert as Max Duvall. I cheered because they were strong respectable and believable men, not bumbling idiots who couldn’t find the ketchup or the kids.
I am at 1043 words and I need to wrap it up. I’ve been listening to the song “Innocence,” by Cannon Division, featuring Soren Bryce on repeat for a few hours now. It’s the song on the trailer for Unbelievable.
The bottom line for me is that this show proves that you can tell a story as is. The characters can be as is. The truth can be as is. Not a shot was fired in this show and the rape depictions both visually and narratively were handled in a way that communicated the horror of rape but didn’t victimize the viewer. We see no female nudity yet we get an extended look at the full frontal male penis, an ongoing Hollywood and pop-culture taboo. In this instance though we are not looking at the penis of a desirable and sexualized male, we’re looking at the weapon of a monster. Detective Duvall was a practicing Christian and it was visible and simply part of the story as opposed to making her weak and her faith a punchline. Multiple nationalities, skin colors, body types, and ages were represented in the storyline. Susannah Grant, who wrote and produced Erin Brockovich is the showrunner here and the production crew is well rounded as well. While a lot of shows today are more concerned about getting the social and people recipe correct, patting themselves on the back, and telling the world about it, Unbelievable seemed more concerned about the message. It’s a show that is comfortable as is. In my opinion Unbelievable is the first television show, or piece of pop-culture for that matter, that is sufficiently socially conscious without trying to be, and that is an indication that we are on the right track. The beautiful thing is that it cares so much about the singular message regarding rape and victimhood. “By the way, just let me say… what happened to you should not happen to anyone, ever.”