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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Unbelievable is based on a true story of a woman who recants rape charges before investigators on rape cases in two other cities indicate that a serial rapist was behind the attacks. Given that sexual violence is at the center of this drama, expect re-enactments of the crime and lots of clinical talk about rape. Re-enactments are filmed in a way that's sympathetic to the victims -- we see their pain and terror, a masked man brandishing a knife, and the camera focuses on small details, such as a pair of tied hands, rather than showing nudity or otherwise depicting the crime. We do see a woman's bare backside from the side in a brief scene as she sits on a toilet to collect a urine sample for her rape kit. One character considers suicide (and climbs over a bridge railing) but doesn't go through with it. Clinical words are used for rape ("penetrate" for example), and there are infrequent curse words: "f--k," "ass." Marie is depicted empathetically -- it's easy to understand why she made the choices she did -- and so are the (female) police officers who wind up investigating her case, demonstrating teamwork, compassion, and perseverance in tracking down the rapist.
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What's the story?
Based on the true story of a woman who was charged with making a false police report of rape, UNBELIEVABLE zeroes in on Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), whose background, demeanor, and jumbled presentation of details after her rape convinced local law enforcement that she's making up her attack. But after Marie recants the charges, two other Colorado detectives learn more details that could prove Marie's story. It's up to Detectives Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Duvall (Merritt Wever) to ferret out the truth, no matter where it leads them.
Is it any good?
Fascinating if grim, this sensitive dramatization of a terrible true story is hard to watch, but impossible to look away from. At first, the real story behind this drama is hard to understand -- why would a real victim say her attack never happened? -- but the series makes it powerfully and painfully clear why Marie thought recanting her charges would ultimately be easier. Kaitlyn Dever is achingly sympathetic as Marie, with every emotion visible on her face as she's put through the tortuous aftermath of a rape report: the swabbing, the scraping, the endless recitations of her attack to stone-faced male cops who seem more interested in spotting inconsistencies in her report than in finding areas to investigate. Worse still is the social shaming that follows her recantation, the counselors and former friends who criticize her harshly as tears course down her face.
Marie's story is so awful that it's almost a relief when Unbelievable shifts away from Marie's story and towards the police officers who investigate separate cases eventually linked to Marie's. Watching the pieces of a criminal puzzle fall into place is a familiar arc for anyone who's watched an episode of Law & Order, and Wever and Collette are easy to watch doing their jobs. But if a police procedural was the only place this series was going, it'd be a lot less special. It's hard to see a victim being truly victimized, by a criminal and those who were supposed to protect her. But Marie's appalling experiences aren't even particularly unique, and this searing drama makes it clear exactly why that's so dreadfully wrong.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about movies and TV shows that are based on true stories. Which can you name? How do they tell their stories of victims and victimizers? Are there any aspects of these narratives that are exploitative, sensationalizing crime rather than telling stories sympathetically? Is Unbelievable an example of a sympathetic or exploitative story? What's the difference?
Rape is a common plot point in dramas. Why? Think of some TV shows or movies where a rape takes place. What was the point of the rape in the show? To ramp up drama? To motivate a character to do something? To increase sympathy for the victim? Another reason? What is the reason the rapes are depicted in Unbelievable? What point do you think this show's creators are trying to make, or what changes are they trying to spark?
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