Thursday, January 9, 2020
January 9, 2020: AmericanStudying Unbelievable: Three Women
[This fall I watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, one of the most compelling and important TV shows I’ve seen in a good while. The show opens up a number of AmericanStudies conversations, so this week I’ll highlight and analyze a handful of them, trying my best to avoid SPOILERS (but probably not entirely succeeding). Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on the TV recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
On a few of the many impressive layers of characterization present in Unbelievable’s trio of female protagonists (building on what I wrote about them in Tuesday’s post):
1) Marie Adler: I’ve focused a good bit on the police over this series so far, and (while I haven’t done the math) I think it’s fair to say that the two cop protagonists end up with the majority of the show’s screen time. But it’s even fairer to say that from the first shots to the last, and in many crucial ways in between, Unbelievable is Marie’s story. That’s unquestionably and centrally due to Kaitlyn Dever’s performance, one of the most natural and intimate and powerful acting jobs I’ve seen in years. But it’s also due to the ways in which Dever and the writers make Marie feel deeply three-dimensional and lived-in, like a young woman whose identity and perspective are in no way defined (while of course they are forever affected) by the sexual assault and its aftermaths. Through even the briefest of scenes and conversations with friends and foster families, at work, in every corner of her fragile young life, Marie becomes more and more the beating heart of the show, carried forward inexorably by the plot but at the same time (long before the final episodes) becoming at least as much the thematic center as even the most shocking plot developments.
2) Karen Duvall: If Marie is the show’s heart, Merrit Wever’s Detective Duvall is its soul. Not just because of the compassion and empathy she brings to every line and moment, although that is indeed the case from her first encounters with Danielle Macdonald’s Amber in ways that significantly and crucially shifts the show’s tone (as I wrote on Tuesday). But also because of an interesting layer to Duvall beyond her professional role and her home life (where her husband, a fellow police officer, is an important supporting character): her religious beliefs and community. Unlike, say, with a character like True Detective’s Rust Cohle (whose strident critiques of religion became viral sensations), Duvall’s perspectives on spirituality only emerge in small moments and lines, and with the same quiet humility she brings to every aspect of her job. But besides feeling far more realistic and human as a result, those small moments are as a result more influential still, both as a window into what makes this impressive woman tic and as one more layer to the show’s grappling with themes of certainty and doubt, hope and despair, justice and tragedy.
3) Grace Rasmussen: From her muscle car (apparently based on the actual detective’s vehicle, per the interview in the first hyperlinked video above) to her far different first encounter with a civilian (angrily accosting a potential rapist and then chewing him out when he turns out to be simply indifferent to her investigation), Toni Collette’s Detective Rasmussen is best described as the show’s guts. Of course it’s practically a requirement for police dramas that two detectives contrast in one way or another, and Duvall and Rasmussen certainly carry forward that legacy in successful and entertaining ways. But because Collette (like these other two actors) is such a talented performer, she makes Rasmussen into much, much more than simply the clichéd tough cop or the like. Although she professes to hate the word “mentor” (perhaps in part because of the presence of “men” in there), she does become a powerful influence upon the younger Duvall, and makes a choice in the penultimate episode (which I won’t spoil here) that seen through that lens is profoundly moving and one more reflection of Unbelievable’s commitment to modeling so many sides to these three women, individually and collectively.
Last UnbelievableStudying tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post and show? Other TV shows you’d recommend and analyze?