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Beth Dubber/Netflix

Merritt Wever as Karen Duvall (right)
Beth Dubber/Netflix

Television

A good cop’s calling

Christians may want to avoid Unbelievable but applaud its depiction of our faith

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.

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Virginia Sherwood/ABC

Allison Tolman and Alexa Swinton in Emergence
Virginia Sherwood/ABC

Television

Sole survivor

A police chief tries to protect a mysterious girl from evil forces in ABC drama Emergence

In ABC’s new weekly drama Emergence, shadowy villains want to get their hands on a little girl who seems to have survived a mysterious plane crash. As a police chief and her family shield the youngster from danger, they try to find out why she is so valuable to evil forces. ABC might have a hit on its hands with Emergence, but is it worthwhile viewing for Christians?

In the middle of the night, a plane crashes over Long Island Sound, and strange storms cause the electrical grid to malfunction. Chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman) arrives at the scene of the wreckage to find a furtive survivor, a little girl named Piper (Alexa Swinton) who instantly bonds with the officer. Who is she, and how has she alone remained alive when the entire aircraft has been destroyed?

Piper has lost her memory and has no place to go. Chief Evans’ home becomes a place of safety, and Evans’ father and daughter accept Piper as one of their own. Even Evans’ ex-husband, despite misgivings, wants to keep Piper safe and camps out with the clan while they figure things out.

Evil forces want Piper, and they want to destroy any evidence of the plane crash. They bury the wreckage far out at sea and seek out anything associated with the accident. Young Piper seems to know more than she is letting on. Her memories resurface, despite her attempts to keep them at bay. She wants desperately to belong to a family, to stay in a safe haven far from a chaotic past she has escaped.

After only three episodes have aired, it’s difficult to make a recommendation about this series. The plot involves an intriguing mystery, but young viewers would find the scenes of gore disturbing, and the show contains occasionally salty language. Still, the characters are well developed and believable (so far), and the themes of love, loyalty, good vs. evil, and a family battling tyranny are timeless.

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NBC Universal Media


NBC Universal Media

Television

Same old tune

NBC’s Perfect Harmony relies on tired stereotypes about rural America

In movies and TV, one story premise seems used more often than most others: A new director takes over a music program, a football program, a literature department, etc. The latest example is NBC’s Perfect Harmony, a Thursday night comedy about a struggling church choir.

Not all such dramas feel stale (think Mr. Holland’s Opus). And of course, the newcomer teacher, director, or coach typically has new ideas that don’t jibe with the community. The problem comes when producers rely on lazy stereotypes to populate the small towns their choirs, schools, and churches inevitably inhabit. 

This show has them all. Rednecks who married too early. A sugary-sweet pastor who turns out to be a villainous hypocrite. To be fair, though: All churches should strive for the diversity of Perfect Harmony’s fictional choir community.

Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) playing grumpy widower Arthur Cochran might be enough to draw viewers, but this show lacks Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting chops. “I became head of one of the best music departments in the country without caring about being accepted,” Arthur declares at the start of Episode 2, summarizing the pilot for any viewers who missed it. “Why start now?”

Some quicker-witted dialogue peppers the show, and certain characters show more nuance after Episode 1. And yes, there’s plenty of music, like a mash-up of “Hallelujah Chorus” and “Eye of the Tiger.” Still, viewers may not get a chance to see if things improve: Ratings for the first two episodes were dismal.

Last year NBC tried a series with a similar premise, Rise, loosely based on a young adult book series. The show was extremely sexualized and highlighted the “small-minded,” small-town folk making life hard for a theater director. It didn’t get picked up for a second season.

Which raises the question: When will Hollywood get the message that relying on rural America for clichéd characters isn’t as profitable as it thinks?

—This review has been updated to correct the name of the screenwriter of The West Wing.

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