Review by Jacqueline Howell
Unbelievable premiered on Netflix with little fanfare to become one of the most dialogue-promoting series in recent memory. Part police-procedural, part reclaimed victim narrative (rather than spotlighting a predator) this series shines with authenticity. Yes, it’s based on true events – a descriptor often loosely used to describe contested or controversial spins on people’s trauma – but here the story drips with an at times, grim realism, and a natural unfolding that reminds us that while the pressure is on to solve difficult serial cases before they grow cold, true investigation has its own rhythm and pace, it’s coincidental twists that feel fated and necessary, and its wrangling between jurisdictions, players and even partners. It is riveting television, especially once you’ve cleared episode two and been introduced to all of the main characters. By then you’ve met the heroes you can pin your hopes on.
Like any tough true crime story, you have to grit your teeth through the details to get to the chase – which means white-knuckling through a tough first episode which recounts the stranger rape of a young woman (Marie, played with a steely strength by Kaitlin Dever) and its mishandled aftermath, her abject isolation and seemingly permanent voicelessness, until we see a glimmer of hope in the form of two female police detectives, played by Toni Collette (as Grace Rasmussin) and Merritt Wever ( as Karen Duvall) who do not appear until the second episode. Thereafter the narratives are interwoven across two time periods.
Toni Collette has established herself on both the small and big screen as an actor of rare truth and directness. Since we fell into her eager eyes so many moons ago as the awkward, lovable ray of sunshine Muriel of the 1994 Aussie hit film Muriel’s Wedding, it’s been love. Collette has been drawn to darker and more complex material of late, and this writer is among her legion of fans who will follow her anywhere – watch any project with her name attached – like the criminally short-lived multiple personality drama – comedy series United States of Tara (2009) – and to the bleakest of depths found in the horror of 2018’s Hereditary. In Unbelievable, Collette takes a new spin on a seasoned, slightly broken-hearted detective with many sharp edges, adding layers of wordless depth that only an actor of her caliber can. (In a world of police procedurals, we still too rarely see fully formed, believable female detectives made this well.) There is a wordless, intimate Collette scene near the series’ end that is sure to bring on the waterworks for others as it did for this writer, unlocking all the emotion at once of seven hours of drama.
Rasmussen is paired through circumstance with a younger detective from another district, Karen Duvall, who is called to the scene of another stranger rape where a young college student has endured an excruciating night with a recall that is clear-eyed and almost photographic. She meets in Duvall a professional of rare empathy, intuition and gentleness. One feels this level of communication could only be achieved woman to woman. But more than this, it’s readily apparent that there are key factors that separate the success of a case like Marie’s (four years prior) and that of the new victim, Amber: she is grounded, much better supported, does not have the shadow of a difficult youth in the foster care system, and is highly articulate. Coupled with the steady hand of Detective Duvall, (Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) is a quiet force of nature and power here) it’s clear from minute one that this case stands a much better chance of seeing a resolution than Marie’s does in episode one. We expect the stories to intersect at some point, but the viewer has no idea when, if or how.
What Unbelievable does so well, and what sets it apart from many other such stories that fall into genre television or implausible twists for drama’s sake, is to draw from the clean lines of real, top-tier journalism. The story is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper series. But even with that, the producers maintain a thorough respect for both the material as an unbelievable, heartrenching, but ultimately satisfying narrative, and for the true, living people it portrays. Survivors of terrible violations. People who may or may not have gotten justice. Victims at different stages of “healing” – from an act which, when handled authentically, is beyond all hour-long-drama sensationalization and is impossible to understand fully from the outside. And the real-life players in the police departments that either succeed or fail victims, for once in clear broad strokes, without the murky grey areas of so much amateur hour / podcasted true crime documentary. Things in these cases were either entirely botched and criminally mishandled, or were carried forth with utmost respect and skill. There are through lines and eventually, clarity. These things are beautiful in their way, even when other details hurt forever.
And so, Unbelievable is an instructive and highly important documentary-like drama that shows in plain language (and as gently as possibly) how flawed justice can still be in the flashy age of C.S.I., DNA and technology. There are people behind all this science and tech. There are fields on forms skipped over, there is coding done by fallible humans, there are limited resources, and sometimes you need to kick down doors and get creative to get anywhere. The work of police detectives is shown in this drama to be something awesome and at times potentially destructive, as it is a unique sort of work that is fully human. The reason we are drawn to police detective narratives across history from “Sherlock Holmes” to “Columbo” to true crime stories is because it calls upon the depths of our human capacity for empathy and greatest heights of objective reason and analysis both, while forcing good people to look at the worst acts humankind is capable of – and still retain a working soul. It is fascinating, important, and totally mysterious work.
The series carries a clear feminist / feminine viewpoint that adds to its strengths (and is, again, true to life). Facts are facts. Women did this and men did that. There are lessons to be learned, takeaways and learning curves that should be used as instructive rather than merely damning. One ineffectual or overconfident cop can do a lot of damage inadvertently, as happens in part of this story. And one great cop who is willing to dig deeper, following her gut, can accomplish much more than a 9-5 day would ever allow. There’s an argument to be made here for intuition and the simple fact that perhaps women who’ve been assaulted by men ought to be interviewed (only) by (skilled) women. A clear specialty. One could argue that rape deserves all the drama and resources of a murder case. We need to do better to care about women before they are dead, instead of after. And there’s a jarring reality depicted in Unbelievable that crimes of rape go to women’s guts and marrow – even as bystanders or people reading the news – in a way far different then they do men. A character exclaims in frustration midway through the series, in reference to male cops “Where’s the OUTRAGE?” Yes. Where? Perhaps, even for great detectives and fine men, rape is just too awful for them to feel in their guts and marrow, in a galvanizing way. For women, it’s a fear and a quiet concern we carry innately and whilst bothering no one, from the time we know we are different from boys for our entire lives. We live with alertness, always looking over our shoulder even on daylit sidewalks, always aware, living with this hum in our bloodstream. We know we can be overpowered by most men. Followed, stalked. We know that our smiles can disarm the predator or invite unwanted attention. And that what many or most of us have experienced at the hands of boys and men could always have been worse – women who’ve been victimized in some way at some point live inside that ellipses. “could have been worse…” It becomes a prayer of gratitude, a blinking caution light. It is innate, barely spoken of, and worldwide.
Lisa Cholodenko directs the first three of eight episodes with a guiding hand, a gifted director you’ll remember from her films High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright with an ever-clear point of view. The show’s producers are at least evenly divided between men and women, and it shows in the series’ execution. This is noteworthy because of the points stated above: on the ground, in the bedroom and on screen, women and men are separate. They are each skilled but bring essential differences to their work, their eye, and their execution when it comes to law enforcement, writing, and filmmaking. Co-creators Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon have assembled a remarkable mini-series deserving of much acclaim, repeat viewing, post-show discussion and awards. They’ve taken the unspeakable and the hopeless and woven it with honesty, care, and a map of what resolution looks like in the most difficult of stories. They’ve shown how different results can be if you see your work as a calling versus a paycheck, how our own projection can taint or aid our work, how all victims matter, not only the cleanest ones, especially the most flawed. This is high art: the everyday, the darkness, the lost and the despairing, giving victims everywhere who nod in recognition, full voice, their reckoning, their day in court, and even, one hopes, some well-earned peace.