A Surprisingly Humane Procedural Drama.
Netflix’s Unbelievable is based on a 2015 Pulitzer-winning piece, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. While staying faithful to the source, it is a procedure-based crime drama that somehow also manages to tell an honest human story, with empathetic characters. Lauded as “TV’s Most Humane Show” by The Atlantic, it’s hard to find a more apt description of this series.
The series follows two female detectives trying to catch a serial rapist before he commits his next rape. This search is compounded by various issues: the rapist’s intimate knowledge of the police system, lack of any evidence, as well as mishandling of cases by male detectives. In one important instance, the victim is not believed by the male detectives in charge of the case, and is booked instead for false reporting.
At a time when a lot of questions are being raised over issues of women’s agency over their own bodies, a lot of attention has also been given to the below-par representation of women in the film industry. With the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences unveiling new diversity requirements for Best Picture nominees, a few steps have been taken in the right direction to combat this under-representation. However, there is a long way to go yet.
This is apparent from the fact that most women-centric films are written and directed by men. Allegations of the ‘male gaze’ creeping into the story have been raised against female-centric films created by men. Right from the 1928 classic The Passion of Jean d’Arc all the way to 2000’s Steve Soderbergh-directed Erin Brockovich, all have been critiqued for dictating how women should be, or for objectifying them.
The issue becomes that the story of an oppressed group is being told by someone more privileged, who does not have firsthand experience of their lived experience. Therefore, they may not be able to accurately portray characters belonging to that group.
In the case of Unbelievable, however, the script has been written about women, and by women. And it really shows: Well-written characters, with their own dilemmas and lives, are written to serve the story and not the agenda. Women are properly represented in the crew: the directors, writers, and producers are mostly women.
While feminism is an important theme, it doesn’t overpower the narrative. Even though the material offers them every chance to, the narrative sticks to portraying the characters’ conflict with underpinnings of the theme, instead of the theme overshadowing the characters. Credit must be given to the writers for exercising remarkable restraint, and sensitivity, when dealing with the emotions of the victims.
A great example of subtlety is the handling of the victims by two detectives: one male, and the other female. The male detective badgers the victim, accusing her of making up stories as he did not find any evidence on the crime scene. The female detective on the other hand talks kindly to the victim, walks her through the process of evidence-collection, and even checks up on her frequently.
The series is in the tradition of Fincher’s crime dramas: not about the destination as much as the journey. The process-oriented nature of the film may seem tedious to some (and indeed, the pace of the series has been criticised for being “painfully slow”), it reaps dividends for the patient viewer.
The pacing is deliberate but relentless, mirroring the investigation. The detectives follow each lead, scrutinize each corner, hoping something turns up, and trying again when the lead becomes a dead-end.
Gone are the tired tropes and cardboard-cut characters of CSI or Law and Order, this is a character-oriented show through and through. The creators make their intent very clear when they write the climax of the plot in the second-last episode, reserving the last one for rounding out character arcs. Never is the plot given more significance than the characters driving the plot. One feels, with every scene, that one is in the hands of truly great artistes of screenwriting.
The already strong script is elevated by strong performances from the cast. Taking a page out of Robert Bresson’s Notes On The Cinematographer, the emphasis is constantly on internal acting. The editing and cinematography aid the actors well. Mid-shots and lingering close-ups show us what a character is really feeling, leaving the actors to shoulder the burden of selling believability. And the actors deliver perfectly.
Unbelievable is very aptly named. It is a once-in-a-generation cinematic triumph. With an almost literary quality, and a ballet dancer’s grace, it glides the viewer into the telling of a true story, punctuated by invisible thematic moments to finally bring the viewer to a truly satisfying conclusion. It is gripping from the first moment to the very last. Its sober pace may test the unseasoned viewer’s patience, but the payoff is worth it.