I have to confess a bias going into watching this mini-series. First, I’m male. That one’s a bit obvious. Second, I’m jaded about rape stories that tell the same tale over and over again without any real nuancing or adding anything new to the narrative. An insight we haven’t seen before, perhaps. Without it, it seems exploitative and derivative to me. More “ripped from the headlines” tabloidism than a real attempt at worthwhile television.
The quick opening for the mini-series Unbelievable establishes the basis for the eight-episode arc of a 16-year-old woman living at an apartment complex for at-risk youth who wakes up one night to find a man in a ski mask with a knife in her room. She’s raped, and afterwards, calls a strong ex-foster mom to come help her; several contacts later, and the police are called. The first police officer on the scene interviews her to get all the details and she’s remote, detached as she recites the details, slowly and without any volunteering of info. Her foster mom is present. Two detectives show up, interview her again, and again, she is remote and detached through the recitation. They do a rape kit at the hospital, she tells some friends and family, and a group therapy session, and then calls another ex-foster mom who comforts her with warm emotion and support. Meanwhile, the police find almost no physical evidence.
Without being too cold and clinical, there is nothing in the story up to this point that is new or different. It is, for wont of a better term, retreading almost every episode of L&O: SVU and has been seen in news stories or cop shows dozens of times. And it was my main worry with the show…the story is tragic, it’s far too common, and given the state of the justice system for dealing with sexual assaults, the rest of the tale could be rather linear. While the show is a mini-series, not a series, and thus not an option for “renewal”, there was also nothing up to this point that would make it compelling television.
For the remaining part of the episode, there are four elements that affect watchability of the series. First, in favour, there is an extended scene at the hospital as she goes through the examination. Most shows skip over this pretty fast, no lingering, and it is often shown more in “hinting” than in exposition. Not this show. They show the explanations from the nurse, the requirement to repeat everything, and then some of the medical stuff. Dye on her genitals looking for damaged tissue. Antibiotics in case of STDs. A morning after pill in case of pregnancy. The nurses are portrayed a bit smug and insensitive, but the overall hospital visit is a strong addition.
Second, while most stories assume it is the insensitive man who dismisses the victim’s story, they went in a different direction here, with the detectives starting to question the veracity of her story mainly because the ex-foster mother suggests the victim isn’t acting the way the mother thinks she should — and suggests maybe she made it up for attention. This starts a snowball for an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where absence of evidence leads them to conclude evidence of absence. So she gives up, recants to avoid painfully retelling the story again and again. She doesn’t want to but she can’t take it anymore.
Both are relatively strong elements that argue in favour of watching the show. But two elements go the opposite way. As mentioned above, the victim plays the role very detached and remote. This isn’t accidental, it is to show the arc, but it makes it harder to connect with her character. However, a bigger problem is that the smug and insensitive nurse portrayal is nothing compared to the ham-fisted way in which the detectives switch to neanderthal status, her friends all turn against her, and one of her close friends is hurt because she made up part of the story with him (embellishing it a bit for attention). While anyone watching it can easily see that she’s coping through deflection and denial, nobody else can — including the health system professionals involved. Really? A bit amateurish and lacking in nuance.
While my initial worries that there would be nothing new in the story were unfounded, the amateurish acting and character development for the secondary and tertiary characters make it almost unwatchable. The big change for the rest of the mini-series is the addition of two female detectives to investigate the case, and hopefully they will be fully realized characters rather than caricatures.
But I confess I won’t know. I’m out. Not enough “new” to keep watching.