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When Detective Stacy Galbraith became the focus of a best-selling true crime book some years ago, she told the authors how vital her Christian faith is to her work. Defining herself as born again, she described the large, nondenominational church she and her husband attend in Golden, Colo. And she shared it’s because of her relationship with God, not in spite of it, that she does a job many consider unusual for a petite young woman. “I know He gave me certain strengths,” she said, “so I just have to use them. Even when it’s painful.”
You might expect an edgy, critically acclaimed streaming series based on that book to downplay this part of Galbraith’s life. Surprisingly, Netflix’s popular new show, Unbelievable, not only doesn’t, it creates a portrait of a modern evangelical any believer would recognize. For example, in one early scene the character based on Galbraith explains that she keeps a note that says, “Here I am, Send Me,” taped to her dashboard because it reminds her of her responsibility to respond to God’s call as Isaiah did.
The story begins with a struggling teen describing her rape at the hands of a masked intruder. Her foster mother doubts her story and causes the police to doubt it, too. After barely looking into her case, they coerce her into recanting and charge her with false reporting. The girl is left isolated and despairing. In the meantime, the rapist continues assaulting other women in other jurisdictions. That’s where Detective Karen Duvall (the fictional version of Galbraith) picks up the case.
Among her sometimes lazy, foul-mouthed colleagues Karen shines like a light in the darkness. Unlike what we typically see in shows like this, her faith is no mere quirk in her personality or a little Easter egg that turns up once every few episodes. We hear her singing alongside her husband at church, a place she jokes she can almost always be found. We see her listening intently to her pastor’s message. And we witness her consistently, yet casually, speaking words of life to her unbelieving friends who sometimes mock her God.
While Karen’s Christianity is an integral part of her character, it doesn’t mark her as naïve or weird. Instead she’s tough, relatable, and sharp as a serpent as she tracks her suspect. In fact Karen’s so far from weird, she’s actually funny! When she says she wishes illness on the rapist during a stakeout, her partner teases, “Karen Duvall, that’s not very Christian of you.” Karen shoots back, “Read your Old Testament, woman. We’re big into vengeance.”
Eventually, Karen’s example begins to draw her partner ever so slightly toward a new openness to spiritual things.
That said, while Unbelievable does a tremendous job portraying a believer like Karen accurately, it also does a good job portraying unbelieving characters accurately. Her partner’s lines are eye-popping for the sheer number of F-bombs they manage to work in. And while the nudity we see when the suspect is processed into prison is realistic and hardly appealing in its clinical detachment, the scene could have worked as well without it.
What perhaps deserves the most warning, though, are the quick flashbacks to the rapist’s crimes. We don’t see anything explicit, and the rapid-spliced scenes illustrate how this kind of trauma continues to assault the victim’s mind. But they’re not for the faint of heart and certainly worth avoiding for those who don’t feel, as Detective Galbraith does, a particular call to grapple with such ugly images.
All of that notwithstanding, it is an exceedingly rare thing for entertainment at this level of popularity not only to draw on Bible verses or stories (plenty of TV shows and movies do that), but to do it in a way that correctly reflects their meaning and application. You don’t have to watch Unbelievable to be cheered that somehow, miracle of miracles, a mainstream Hollywood production has finally gotten a Christian character right.