It’s easy to predict that many responses to Netflix’s limited series Unbelievable will make a comparison between this true-crime tale and the exaggerated noir of HBO’s True Detective. That’s not only too obvious, it does the former the ultimate disservice. Based on the real-life case of a young woman’s victimization at the hands of both a serial rapist and the police who refused to believe her story, as well as the subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winning article from The Marshall Project and ProPublica, ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape,’ by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, the limited series offers a grounded, thoughtful, and thought-provoking account of two police detectives’ dogged pursuit of justice and one young woman’s efforts to heal and be heard after suffering a horrendous assault.
Unbelievable also features an embarrassment of riches both in front of and behind the camera. Co-created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, 28 Days), along with acclaimed writer Ayelet Waldman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (and Picard showrunner) Michael Chabon, the series’ eight episodes are directed by Grant, Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right, Laurel Canyon) and Michael Dinner (Justified). It also features up-and-comer Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) as Marie, the young woman whose assault and subsequent mistreatment by the police kicks the story off. Then there’s the stellar pairing of Merritt Wever and Toni Collette as two Colorado detectives investigating a string of sexual assaults they believe to be committed by a single individual.
Such a collection of talent is enough to garner even a passing interest in the series, and given that curious viewers will be reward with a compelling (though sometimes difficult) and fast-paced eight-hour viewing commitment, Unbelievable is likely set to be one of Netflix’s most memorable offerings in 2019. Much of that is in fact due to the aforementioned talent involved, but it’s also due to the measured approach the series takes in telling its story, so that it is not only a a captivating procedural, but it's also mindful of the women who were victimized by a sexual predator.
Like ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ and the This American Life radio episode, ‘Anatomy of Doubt,’ Unbelievable takes a unique approach to its narrative, which is essentially two narratives taking place at different times but unfolding in conjunction with one another. The series begins in the immediate aftermath of Marie’s assault, and her confusion and discomfort stemming not only from the trauma she suffered, but also the lack of empathy she receives from a pair of Lynwood, Washington detectives played by Eric Lange (The Bridge) and Bill Fagerbakke (Coach). The first hour details Marie’s troubled background, her experiences in the foster care system, and her attempts to make a go of things in a closely monitored group home, which is where her assault occurred.
By taking the audience through Marie’s background with a pair of foster parents, one played by Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland) and another by Brent Sexton (The Killing) and Bridget Everett (Camping), and illustrating the way in which her background essentially (and unfairly) works against her credibility, Cholodenko sets the stage and the stakes for the series as a whole, making the transition in the second episode to a split narrative featuring Marie in the past and also Colorado detectives Karen Duvall (Wever) and Grace Rassmussen (Collette), a few years later, feel like a comprehensive step toward making sure the series’ facts are straight.
Despite its dual narrative, Unbelievable unfolds much like a typical police procedural, albeit one that’s made distinctive by the often colorful interplay between Wever and Collette as they at initially bristle at one another before settling into a more comfortable rhythm that suits both personalities. The series has only a passing interest in the usual bureaucratic red tape that keeps such dogged investigators from doing their job. As such, Unbelievable can at times feel as though it’s riding on rails and that the Grant, Waldman, Chabon, and the other writers are synopsizing rather than excavating a more substantive account of what was an intensive and methodical police investigation.
Nevertheless, the series is bolstered by superb performances all around, particularly the three leads, though supporting cast like Marvel, Everett, Sexton, and Danielle Macdonald, as the Colorado victims who gets Duvall involved on the case, round out the cast nicely. For her part, Dever is heartbreaking as Marie, establishing the series' emotional core, though her experience does become increasingly difficult to watch over time. Wever and Collette ultimately steal the show, however, as a pair of ultra-competent police detectives who essentially work an impossible case until it breaks wide open.
Though viewers could and should read ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ and listen to ‘Anatomy of Doubt,’ Unbelievable still manages to make this harrowing real-life story into a compelling fictionalized account, one that will make for a fulfilling binge-watch and will perhaps see its stars on awards lists as the year progresses.
Unbelievable will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, September 13.