Is this Netflix’s big chance to finally win Outstanding Limited Series next season?
Netflix’s Unbelievable quietly debuted two weeks ago, but everyone is still talking about the show’s emotional punch. Led by a powerful cast of women, Unbelievable is based on a 2015 news article titled “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, and it has been universally praised for its acting and direction. Even though the Emmy season just ended, it’s hard not to wonder whether Unbelievable can finally be the show that helps Netflix take a series crown.
Who Takes the Lead? The first episode of the eight-episode series focuses solely on Kaitlyn Dever’s Marie Adler as she recounts her assault to the police and various people in her life. After her story takes several shocking twists, the second episode shifts to Merritt Wever’s Detective Karen Duvall and Toni Collette’s Detective Grace Rasmussen as they team up to investigate similar seeming assaults on other women throughout Colorado. The series then volleys back and forth as Marie’s trauma deepens and Karen and Grace close in on their suspect.
Both Wever and Collette are previous Emmy Award winners (Wever won for Nurse Jackie and Godless while Collette took home her Emmy for United States of Tara), and they are the biggest stars of the show. Unbelievable begins and ends with Dever, so will Netflix run her as lead or will Wever and Collette share lead credits and Dever go supporting? It’s possible that all 3 women could campaign as leads, but Dever would probably miss out because she’s lesser-known than her Unbelievable contemporaries.
Room for More? There is a moment in the finale where a character says, “The problem is that you’re always a step behind. You’re reacting. Wanna catch guys like me? You gotta get ahead of us. Anticipate. We think about this–a lot. We’re smart.” While Unbelievable is about a particular contained story, it would not be surprising if Netflix decided to ask for more episodes of the drama, and that would change it from Limited Series contention to Drama Series. It could possibly follow the Big Little Lies Emmy route for the first season and campaign as Limited and then announce more episodes. If the public cry for more episodes gets louder and louder, Netflix should pull an American Crime and cast the same compelling actors in different roles.
The Cagney & Lacey Factor
If Unbelievable somehow shifts to the Drama Series categories (it shouldn’t–this story does not need to be extended with the same characters), Wever and Collette could find themselves in good company. Between 1983 and 1988, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless dominated the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category at the Emmys, winning 6 awards between them, and the pair were almost always nominated for the Golden Globes as well (Gless was the only one that won and she garnered one more nomination than Daly).
Throughout the history of the Lead Actress in a Drama Series category, two actresses landing nominations isn’t unheard of. Just this year, Jodie Comer edged out Sandra Oh for Killing Eve, and The Sopranos and Six Feet Under garnered nominations for two actresses each (for Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco & Frances Conroy and Rachel Griffiths, respectively). It’s unlikely that Unbelievable will make such a drastic awards shift, but them focusing on another case would not be surprising, especially since the show has been so well received by audiences.
Despite being a leader in the world of streaming, Netflix has never nabbed a Limited Series prize. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us received 16 Emmy nominations this previous season, and Godless nabbed 12 the season before, but that’s it. Since Netflix has had such a presence in the Drama Series categories since 2011, it’s easy to forget that the network isn’t a sure thing in every series race.
FX is the network that dominates the Limited Series races, but that mostly has to do with the relationship with Ryan Murphy. Fosse/Verdon felt very much like a Murphy show, and it did very well for itself this past year. Now that Murphy has moved on to work with Netflix, can it make a move to actually win? Perhaps FX isn’t the biggest threat after all, and HBO will go head to head with Netflix again this season. The adaptation of Tom Perotta’s Mrs. Fletcherwill be in the race as well as the Helen Mirren-fronted Catherine the Great.
Small But Mighty Unbelievable came out two weeks before TV’s biggest night, so the show will need Netflix behind it in order to get awards attention. What’s so great about the show is how tough it is, but it still is capable of listening and giving its victims their own space. Watch how Wever and Collette listen to the painful testimonies of Danielle Macdonald and Jayne Taini, and you will see a patience and empathy that you don’t see genuinely performed in a lot of similar dramas.
Unbelievable could have been a standard, run of the mill abuse drama, but everything about it is top-notch. It’s executed with such care that a thoughtful Emmy campaign would be a great reward.