Netflix‘s new crime drama, Unbelievable, might qualify as one of the most watchable series of the year. Granted, this is an unexpected development. This limited series arrives with an incredible hurdle to overcome while lending the appearance, due to its (true) subject matter, as a difficult watch, possibly even moreso than HBO’s Chernobyl or Netflix’s When They See Us. Yet that’s not (for the most part) the case. Yes, this show revolves around the subject of sexual assault, which is never a pleasant topic and doesn’t seem like it’d make for bingeworthy material. But the sheer fact of the matter is that this series is both moored and elevated by the performances of three extraordinary actresses. Furthermore, the series works with a subtly deft hand that skillfully shakes truths loose, and that makes for a more compelling viewing experience than at least one season of HBO’s True Detective (I think you can guess which one).
The most standout aspect of Unbelievable, though, is that it shines light on survivors and heroes, rather than dwelling upon the psyches of perpetrators of violent crimes. That’s definitely a notable approach, right after the release of a Mindhunter season, along with several recent projects devoted to the celebrity of Ted Bundy and charisma of Charles Manson. As entertaining as those projects have been, Unbelievable almost feels insurgent in comparison. It’s a feminist approach to crime-drama storytelling, but the series never feels preachy or heavy-handed in its execution. Flashbacks occur as they are necessary, and any perpetrator’s methods are acknowledged but not admired. The details might be triggering, but the focus sits upon the lingering outcome of these crimes. The reality that Unbelievable confronts is that the aftermath of sexual assault can be as traumatic (or moreso) than the attacks themselves. Admittedly, this sounds god-awful as viewing material, but the resulting watchability is only one way that the series turns assumptions upon their heads.
Unbelievable unfurls two major story arcs. One follows two stellar female detectives portrayed by two Emmy winners. That’d be Toni Collette as Grace Rasmussen and Merritt Wever as Karen Duvall. The two initially circle each other like lionesses before, almost wordlessly, settling into a comfortable and complimentary groove with each other’s opposing styles. Rasmussen is hardened, and Duvall is empathetic, both startlingly so. These sound like archetypal descriptions and the set up for a paint-by-numbers rendition of a cat-and-mouse game, but these detectives are truly and fully realized characters, who also happen to be based upon real people — two paradigm-shifting detectives who refused to rest when they realized a serial rapist was afoot.
The other arc is in good hands with a third bit of acting dynamite, Kaitlyn Dever (Justified and Booksmart). She shows us the ordeal of Marie Adler, a young woman who’s enduring hell after reporting a rape by an intruder in her apartment. She’s treated coldly by the responding police officer, antiseptically by hospital staff, and with the utmost skepticism by the two male detectives on her case. She must tell her story, over and over again, verbally and in written form, to different parties. Just when she thinks her work in proving her case might be complete, she’s pressured to retract her story by the male detectives on her case. That’s not even close to the end of her legal nightmare. Marie finds herself accused of concocting the entire “incident” and charged with false reporting. Her future goes down the tubes.
That’s the sad truth revealed by Unbelievable: sexual assault victims are sometimes treated like criminals, and they’re often saddled with a harsher burden of proof than, say, robbery victims. It’s infuriating, and yes, it happens.
The show, of course, is based upon real events as unearthed through an enormous amount of investigative journalism (the Marshall Project; the ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong; and a This American Life radio episode, “Anatomy Of Doubt”). Identities are all tweaked, and the show plays through a procedural framework with a startlingly human take. These two arcs occur independently, separated by a few years and hundreds of miles. It’s apparent to the audience that they carry startling similarities, although the dots don’t connect until much further down the line.
The textured storytelling of Unbelievable will keep viewers hooked through the eventual intersection of the story arcs, but the performances make a lasting impression. Dever, who was so beautifully and admirably resourceful and resilient in Justified, shines in the subtlest of ways as a young woman who’s grown accustomed to being treated in inhumane ways by the system. Her surges of emotion bubble underneath the surface as she suffers betrayal and heartbreak. Marie’s never helpless, yet she’s unable to help herself due to an array of sh*tty circumstances beyond her control. However, there’s no wallowing in self-pity, and the young woman’s strength proves her survivor’s will. She has no idea that, halfway across the country, two other strong and resilient women will soon be hard at work on cases very similar to her own.
As for Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall, they’re highly skilled and accustomed to proving themselves against skeptical counterparts in their profession. Their necessary maneuverings are thrilling to watch, especially given that the pair of male detectives on Marie’s case are fatally governed by their own emotions. That almost never happens on TV, even when it takes place in reality, and that’s only one way that Unbelievable isn’t afraid to expose truths. Along the way, viewers will see flashes of humanity and vulnerability, all wrapped up in a riveting package. Yes, plenty of male characters do assist in eventual justice for Marie and victims from other cases — this is not a male-bashing series at all — but Rasmussen and Duvall deserve the credit for solving cases that would have otherwise been shelved for being too much trouble and fuss.
Certainly, this series is not a lighthearted watch. Plenty of infuriating moments go down, ones that might make you question your faith in humanity before building your spirit back up. In the end, the show challenges how victims are often judged, say, if they don’t fit neatly into a stereotypical pattern of reactive behavior. Or if a perpetrator took great care not to leave evidence behind. Or if they come from a challenged background. Or if the assigned detectives on a particular case simply don’t feel like “wasting time” to dig deeper. And so on. None of these variables affect the reality that a rape did in fact occur, and yes, this all has plenty to do with gender bias. Layers of corruption pile onto these cases like a rotten onion, leaving victims shattered all over again. Unbelievable goes a long way to extinguish this pattern, all while giving the viewer a riveting story anchored by characters who never set out to be legendary but fully deserve the label.
‘Unbelievable’ debuts on Netflix on September 13.