Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 13: Taking the easy way out with Unbelievable.

Kaitlyn Dever wears a blue collared shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a steely gaze.
Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

Sack Lunch Gang,

I mentioned in my last dispatch that I watched Unbelievable, a Netflix drama based on a true story, about the hunt for a serial rapist that was also an elegant rebuttal of the male prerogatives inherent both in law enforcement and TV shows about law enforcement. More accurately though, I watched two-thirds to three-fourths of it. I was familiar with the Pulitzer Prize–winning piece that inspired the show and so knew it would feature a young woman who is raped by a home intruder and disbelieved by the police, beginning a cascade of injustices that derail her life for years. Shortly into the first episode, which focuses entirely on this young woman, movingly played by Kaitlyn Dever, and that encapsulates much of the story I just laid out, I decided I did not want to watch this horrifying double trauma—the rape and then everything that comes after—unfold. I hit fast forward.

Unbelievable belongs to a category of work—innocent person destroyed in the regular operations of an unjust, all powerful system; When They See Us and Chernobyl also belong—that makes me feel frenzied and trapped at the same time, face to face with the intolerable fact of the powerlessness of the righteous. I hate it, which is a near-meaningless thing to say: Who doesn’t? If I had been reviewing the show for work, I would have watched all of it, but I was watching in a lax professional capacity—to have some literacy with the show for occasions such as this—and I let my fingers do the walking, all the way to my laptop track pad.

The show that is left when you fast-forward though the Kaitlyn Dever stuff is an extremely satisfying cop procedural featuring two sane, reasonable, cool, comradely, and very excellent female police detectives, played by the fantastic Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who team up to catch a serial rapist. Their personal lives are not a mess, they do not hate other women, and in fact, they know how to speak with female victims so well—to give them attention, space, time, and kindness—that it is directly responsible for their cracking the case. (And yes, I did watch enough of the Kaitlyn Dever stuff to get the payoffs toward the end, where she confronts the cop who didn’t believe her and makes the thank-you phone call. I cried. I was barely watching, and still, I cried, as I was meant to.) But this version of the show, the one that features only Collette and Wever, is not really excruciating at all. There’s some tough stuff in it, but it plays like a particularly thoughtful, sophisticated update of Cagney & Lacey. (I would like Wever and Collette to team up to give us exactly that on an annual basis.)

This, obviously, is not how the show’s creators intended it to be seen. In my capacity as a TV critic, if someone were to come to me, feeling guilty that they had chopped up the series in this way, I would immediately absolve them. There is no have to when it comes to TV. Watch what you want. Skip what you want. It’s between you and your television. But I can’t quite go so easy on myself, because I did the easy thing: insulated myself from feeling the powerlessness and unfairness that the show wanted me to feel, because it’s what the protagonists had themselves experienced. The show was an empathy machine and I decided not to get in, choosing a comfortable ride in a well-made cop show instead.

But is that all that happened? It seems to me that shows like this, like Unbelievable, When They See Us, Chernobyl, ones that correct the record about an injustice, are operating on a whole bunch of different levels simultaneously. One is that everyone should know these stories: They are horrible, but they are true. TV (like film, in this way) can use the tools of entertainment to entice us to enter into what happened and then can make it feel hot and personal, grab onto our feelings as well as our minds. These shows are noble, but when they are really working, when they are really good, they are more than just noble; they crack through the veneer of piousness, of being homework, and—counterintuitively maybe—begin to work as just fiction. (For me, When They See Us only got there in the Jharrel Jerome episode, but it did get there.) In some kind of flouting of the laws of physics, when that happens, they make the river flow away from the sea: You want to tune in to watch something incredibly painful.

But the reasons why we watch things are complicated, and I think they are especially so with this sort of show. As much as watching is about bearing witness, about sitting with a horrible reality some people have had no choice but to face, about being outraged, about being moved, about signal-boosting a project based on a story all Americans should have to grapple with, about doing the bare minimum—feeling a little emotional discomfort while watching a TV show—there’s something else too.

I’m going to give up the charade (or is it the camouflage?) of the third-person plural and second-person singular and speak only as myself. Watching shows (or movies) like this brings me pain, tears, and self-loathing. I find them so extremely moving. But underneath all those notes, there’s another one playing. There’s a little self-sentimentalizing burst of pride in my own depth of feeling, at my own capacity to respond so fully to the material (even as I also know that a person with the sensitivity of a foot callus would feel something watching these shows). When I’m watching, I’m not just encountering the people on screen, I’m encountering a version of myself—and isn’t she so empathic? And then there’s the little shimmer of virtuousness that comes with having elected to watch something so gutting in the first place, as if, in choosing to watch a difficult TV show, I actually did something difficult at all.

So, in Unbelievable’s case, I skipped the excruciating, and in doing so, I skipped all the other stuff too. I was not pained for any of it, but I also could not congratulate myself on doing the onerous emotional work of watching a TV show that wasn’t always fun to watch—because I had made it into one that was.

Changing the subject now feels extremely abrupt, but I really want to stop talking about myself! And there’s more TV that needs to be chewed over as we head into the home stretch anyway. Let’s dig in on the things you loved, but maybe also the things you hated? One thing I was kind of happy to see the return of this year was well-funded catastrophically bad TV, which used to be a network specialty. I’m thinking of Apple’s See, the grimy show about a post-apocalyptic world in which a society of blind people wear feathers in their armored caps and masturbation is a form of prayer, and Netflix’s The I-Land, which I learned all about from Kathryn’s tweets. I’d also love to hear about the performances you most admired. I missed the chance to hail queen Betty Gilpin, but since there will be a fourth season of GLOW, I’ll get another crack at it—maybe one of you would like to take on Natasha Lyonne, so I don’t have to feel bad about that too?

XO,
Willa

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.