Poignant, well-written and incredibly moving, Unorthodox is an example of how to tell a simple story well while nailing every element of its production to perfection. Based on the best selling book of the same name, Unorthodox combines some moving performances with an empowering story of femininity, belief and confidence. With four parts clocking in at around 50 minutes, this tightly-woven story never outstays its welcome and does well to weave different themes through each episode to form one cohesive, must-watch mini-series.
Told across three different timelines, Unorthodox essentially revolves around a young Jewish girl called Esther Shapiro (or Esty to her friends and family) who flees from an oppressive pre-arranged marriage and her community in Manhattan to start a new life in Berlin by finding her estranged Mother. Along the way Esty makes new friends, learns about love and passion while embracing music again; her one release from an otherwise suffocating life. All of this builds up to a climactic finale that rounds things out nicely and gives a good send-off to our characters, with a perfect final scene encapsulating everything we’ve learnt up until this point.
Many series nowadays pepper in flashback scenes to give exposition on past events but none quite achieve this as effectively as Unorthodox. The three different timelines – Esty as a young girl learning the ways of the community, Esty beginning her new married life to Yanky, and our present timeline – all complement one another perfectly with a different theme running through each episode.
Take episode 3 for example. This explores passion and love across the 50 minutes and with just our present timeline this would be a pretty straight forward tale. With the depth of the other two timelines there’s scope for juxtapositions and comparisons as these poetically dance together harmoniously to add so much more depth to this story.
This depth spills over to the different ideas and commentary encapsulating the show too, with baptisms and new beginnings manifesting through the use of water, and big questions raised around religion and temptations. There’s also plenty of material here around sexism and class but none of these ever overpower the narrative. Instead, this is one of those rare instances where societal issues we all face now works alongside the story perfectly rather than pushing the narrative aside in favour of making a point.
The characters and acting is ultimately where the show really shines though and while Shira Haas puts on a great performance as Esty, the supporting cast do a great job in their roles too. There’s some really solid dialogue exchanges through all three timelines and although some of the past scenes don’t always hit the highest emotional peaks, there’s enough impressive work done here to really find yourself captured into the heart of this story.
Unorthodox is quite simply one of the best mini-series of the year. It’s not a particularly complicated story and it isn’t ladled with plot twists, big shocks or much in the way of action. What it does do however, is tell a simple story effectively while weaving in enough themes, morals and ideas to make this a really thought provoking piece of television. It’s not perfect, and the tension could have been a bit higher during the middle portion of episodes, but these are minor points in what’s otherwise a really competently written and acted show.