Unbelievable

Becky and I burned through this one over a couple of nights and it was good. I hesitate to say it was entertaining, because it’s a rough watch–very frustrating to see how systematic some of this crap is–but it’s really well done and the performances are excellent across the board. I also think the way they structured this was really well done. It was based on an article from ProPublica and sometimes shows or movies based on articles are bloated or meandering, but this was done perfectly to create suspense and intrigue as well as setting the viewers expectations appropriately. This is a tough story and the filmmakers make it very clear not to expect a fairy tale happy ending.

The first thread, set in 2008, is about Marie Adler (not her real name) who reports that she was raped and then, after being harassed and passively aggressively dismissed by the two male detectives working her case, she retracts her statement so she can go home and put it all behind her only to find out that retracting her statement will cost her everything, possibly including her freedom when she’s charged and prosecuted for filing a false police report. The second thread, set three years later, follows two female detectives as they investigate a series of attacks very similar to Marie’s.

From a strictly crime fiction entertainment POV, it was interesting to break down the second timeline and how they told that story. It’s especially enlightening thinking about it in the context of a show like TRUE DETECTIVE that made it’s name deconstructing the detective story though it failed to do it nearly as well as UNBELIEVABLE did. First, it was nice having both female cops with spouses who were also in law enforcement. I suspect this is closer to real life than the fictional setups we get with artificial conflict generated from spouses who don’t get what the cop’s job entails.

Toni Colette plays a tough cop like we’ve seen many times before, but Merritt Wever was my favorite as a cop type we rarely see: the everywoman cop. She’s the truest ideal, I think, Ed McBain was trying to get at when he took cliched detectives and “gave them head colds” to make them relatable. She plays one of the most relatable detectives I think I’ve ever seen on TV. She knows she’s a good cop, but doesn’t have the experience to project that confidence, and she’s always wondering if she’s doing the right thing.

One of the best parts of this timeline is seeing how differently a sexual assault case and victim are treated when the investigation is not only led by women, but has numerous women involved in the work behind the scenes as well. This shows why it’s so important to have equal representation of gender and racial experiences in law enforcement at every level. They see things differently, they feel things differently, and, in almost every case, they’re smarter intellectually and emotionally.

Back in 2008 is where the hard viewing comes into play because Marie can’t catch a break. It’s terrible to watch her lose everything because it’s not done by anyone being intentionally malicious. You get an insider’s view into how systematic our distrust of women is in society and it’s nauseating. After just the first episode, I was amazed that any woman is willing to run the gauntlet of shame distrust laid down in front of her to report a sexual assault.

As the father of two daughters I want to believe with all of my heart I would believe them if they came to me, but then I see two well-meaning, loving foster parents doubt her and wonder how deep my institutional bias would go. And as the father of a son, I know all of the stats that false rape accusations are exceedingly rare and that the ones that do happen have some striking similarities, but a part of me still fears it. And a part of me wonders if I would instinctively take my son’s side over a woman’s. Of course I hope to raise a son that won’t ever be in that situation, but I can’t help but think about it.

If the purpose of crime fiction is to entertain while making the reader or view think, then UNBELIEVABLE hit every one of it’s marks. And hopefully I will pay it forward by being inspired to make even more sure that my female characters–detectives, victims, parents, and others–are as real and complex as possible.