Created by Susannah Grant; Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Weaver, Toni Collette
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Netflix’s latest original show, Unbelievable (2019), opens on a challenging note: police officers are called to the Oakdale Apartments for At-Risk Youth in Washington in response to a rape that occurred there the night before. Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) sits wrapped in a blanket, tears in her eyes, looking stunned. At first, the cops take her seriously; they fully investigate the crime, collecting data from the scene and interviewing the people who live in the area. But when Adler’s personal history comes out — multiple foster care homes, years of abuse, and what her former foster mother calls “lots of ‘look at me’ behavior,” the cops start to question her story. Perhaps, they think, she is only trying to get attention since she has been denied care and love for so long. In a series of harrowing and emotional interviews, the detectives get her to recant her statement and admit that she made it all up. Meanwhile, 1,000 miles away in Colorado, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver) is investigating the rape of a young college student. By sheer luck, she learns that another detective one district over, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), is looking into a rape with very similar characteristics: the rapist tied up his victim, took photos of her using a pink camera, left the crime scene pristine with no DNA anywhere. Duvall and Rasmussen begin working together to solve their cases, and soon learn that the rapist has victimized many more than just the two women that they know of.
Netflix is able to pack a lot into this eight-episode miniseries — which is inspired by true events — yet the story never feels rushed or unrealistic. The time is taken to develop our characters and show them even in their off moments. We see the two detectives bonding — and not in the stereotypical mushy and emotional “woman bonding” way that Rasmussen so hates. They play cards together, question their methods, hash out their ideas and feelings about what’s going on. It’s refreshing to see female law enforcement characters shown in such detail, which rarely happens. Even Elias (Omar Maskati), the intern at the Westminster Police Department, is given time to shine and show off his investigative chops. The viewer is shown the development of the investigation, the dead ends and failures, and being able to witness this progression makes the final product feel all the more satisfying. Even the detectives in Washington who dismiss Adler’s case and charge her with false reporting are given more than a cardboard stock role. At points, we can almost understand their uncertainty about Adler’s case and their reasoning for their actions. Aside from the rapist, the show does not characterize anyone as all good or all bad, although some characters may be unlikeable or obtuse. Such development keeps the show engaging and realistic rather than straying toward the age-old story of the woman who is raped and no one believes her.
Of course, it helps that the show has amassed such a skilled cast. I so wish that Dever could have been in more of the show, since after the first episode the show jumps from her back to the detectives in Colorado until, eventually, it’s mostly about the detectives. Her character never smiles and often seems on the verge of tears. One may wonder why a person would say they made up a rape when it actually happened, but watching Dever’s character in the interview room, it becomes all too clear. Adler just looks lost; her lips quiver, her eyes are wide and empty and full of pain. You can almost see the zillion thoughts racing through her head as she tries to take in what is happening and wonders whether there really is any good left in the world. It’s a truly masterful performance, delicate without being overly dramatic, and the show would not have been successful without Dever’s exceptional work. On the other hand are Weaver and Collette, who work together wonderfully without falling too much into the good-cop/bad-cop routine. Weaver allows Duvall’s optimism to come through but not overwhelmingly; she is no stereotypical overly-hopeful rookie cop. She is slow and methodical. We can see each question she asks, each lead she follows, each conversation she has with the victim — its weight is visible on her face and in her posture. She carries her work with her. And while Rasmussen is more glib and matter of fact, we can see the toll her work has taken on her, as well. Although she struts around the office with confidence, Collette makes wise choices that imbue her character with a sense of humanity. Underneath it all, she is often as conflicted as everyone else.
The show’s weakness is its script, which is sometimes flat and awkward. The talented cast still manages to pull it off with a lackluster script, but the dialogue is clunky. In one scene, Duvall and Rasmussen meet with FBI Special Agent Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence), and they discuss that investigators are more motivated when solving murders than when solving rapes. Taggart’s face leads Rasumussen to sigh, “Don’t look like you just robbed us of our innocence, Taggart. We’ve been down this block before.” “We live on this block,” Duvall quickly adds. It’s a true enough sentiment, but it just comes off cliché; no one talks like that in real life. In trying for quick, tough-talking cop dialogue, the dialogue comes off as affected.
Unbelievable is often difficult to watch, especially in its first hour, and it brought me to tears multiple times. And, incredible as the show is, I couldn’t help thinking how tragic and emotionally disturbing the story is, even though it ends somewhat happily. They caught the guy. All’s well that ends well, right? I wish the show had dwelt more on unsolved, uninvestigated, unreported, or unbelieved cases, of which there are many. Even a short postscript at the end of the miniseries with statistics about solved or reported rape cases would have helped to drive home how extremely rare supposedly “happy” endings like Adler’s are.