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The Unique Perspective of ‘Unbelievable’

With Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette as its leads, Lisa Cholodenko as its director, and Susannah Grant as its creator, Netflix’s newest true crime drama achieves a rare level of empathy

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The heroine of Unbelievable—one of several, really—isn’t plunged into a nightmare so much as steeped in it. The first episode of Netflix’s eight-episode true crime series never strays from the perspective of Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a Washington teenager who was raped in her apartment in 2008. Consequently, it’s hard to identify the moment the investigation into Marie’s assault goes horribly awry. At first, Marie is supported: by her former foster parents, by the counselors in her community for at-risk youth transitioning out of the system, by the detectives called to the scene. But slowly, that support falls away. Marie’s onetime foster mom thinks her testimony is “off.” Asked to recount her attack over and over again, Marie starts to break down. Finally, the sympathetic-turned-skeptical detectives browbeat a retraction from a scared, confused, traumatized young woman, eventually going so far as to charge her with false reporting. Like Marie herself, the viewer becomes a frog in the boiling water of America’s broken criminal justice system, unable to pinpoint when her situation goes from difficult to dangerous.

It’s only in the next episode the extent of Marie’s mistreatment becomes clear. Years later, in 2011, Marie’s attacker has struck again, this time in Colorado. The detective assigned to the case, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), doesn’t just do Amber (Danielle Macdonald) the basic decency of believing her story. She supports her in the telling, taking her to a quiet, secluded location for her initial testimony and checking up on her throughout the investigative process. She’s also well versed in the sensitivities and special procedures required in this particular strain of detective work. Duvall notes that most studies show that victims’ memories are best in the immediate aftermath of their encounter; it’s normal for repeat tellings to yield the “inconsistencies” that supposedly invalidated Marie’s testimony. Wever radiates compassion and understanding throughout; in a horrible sense, her character’s actions are the best-case version of a worst-case scenario. The implications for Marie’s mistreatment are clear: It didn’t have to be this way.

The chasm between these two outcomes speaks to the differences between Duvall and her colleagues, but also to Unbelievable and the rest of its genre. Based on a 2015 ProPublica story, Unbelievable fits into a trend the Vanity Fair journalist Joy Press deemed “must-endure TV”—real-life stories whose adaptations emphasize emotion and education over entertainment, or even ease of viewing. It’s not fun to bear witness to Korey Wise’s solitary confinement in When They See Us or the Ukrainian people’s radiation poisoning in Chernobyl, but it is important to enshrine their points of view in the historical record. Particularly in its premiere, Unbelievable replicates this process for one of the many survivors of sexual violence ignored or, worse yet, persecuted by law enforcement. Yet it also adds a heartening note of optimism to a justified sense of outrage. It is rare, but possible, for survivors to find the advocates they deserve. And it is novel, but promising, to see this possibility envisioned by women, whom the issue of sexual violence most directly affects.

Unbelievable takes place across two timelines. The first tracks Marie’s gradual, painful dissolution under the unforgiving gaze of her supervisors and peers. The second follows Duvall’s partnership with Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), another detective on the trail of a suspect they quickly realize is a serial predator. Created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), partially directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), and written with help from, among others, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, Unbelievable is shrewdly structured by a team of experienced, empathetic storytellers. Marie’s story anchors Rasmussen and Duvall’s, constantly reiterating the stakes of what is partially, though never entirely, a propulsive buddy-cop narrative of good guys catching bad. But Rasmussen and Duvall’s half of the show also laces Marie’s with a welcome dose of optimism. Unbelievable is well aware of the injustice Marie and her fellow survivors endured—so much so that it recognizes the overwhelming impact when justice finally arrives.

Though they’re based on real people, Duvall and Rasmussen fulfill many of detective fiction’s most recognizable tropes. Rasmussen is a hard-charging loner who pushes buttons, takes no shit, and drives around in a glorious golden muscle car; Duvall is an empath who cares so deeply about her work that, in a scene that will surely serve as Wever’s Emmy reel come 2020, she breaks her typically soft-spoken composure to berate her support staff for not matching her commitment. Held up against the uniquely devastating horrors facing Marie, there’s a comforting familiarity to the duo’s gumshoe police work as they interview witness after witness and zero in on a suspect—a hunch here, a happy coincidence there.

But Duvall and Rasmussen are very much not typical onscreen detectives in at least one crucial respect. From classics like Twin Peaks to more recent hits like True Detective, prestige-inflected crime is a predominantly male profession. To be fair, this is not an unaccurate portrayal of American police departments in the late 20th century, and much of the field has gotten better at incorporating meaningful female characters over time. It’s nonetheless all too common to filter an issue like sexual violence, which predominantly affects women, through the perception and pasts of men charged with finding their attackers. This isn’t to say that men are incapable of connecting with or advocating for survivors; the original ProPublica piece was coreported by male journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. Still, there’s a perspective that’s all too often missing from the highest-profile, and highest-production-value, stories about rape and its aftermath.

Unbelievable is not shy about presenting Duvall’s and Rasmussen’s identities as an advantage, not a liability. Each woman has a personal connection to their shared case, one that only grows deeper as they locate more victims. Where outside observers, including their own colleagues, might charge that the detectives’ emotional investment renders them biased or otherwise “too close,” Unbelievable shows Duvall and Rasmussen to be especially motivated and competent investigators. Compared to the well-meaning men who surround them—the FBI agent called in to assist their search, the DA who eventually prosecutes the perpetrator, even the detective who originally forced Marie’s retraction—these women have a deeper understanding of the evil their mark has done, and the urgency of finding him before he can do it again.

The protagonists’ orientation is complemented by Unbelievable’s filmmaking, which shows Marie’s and other’s assaults frequently enough to communicate their effect, yet judiciously enough to never seem exploitative. The rapes are depicted in split-second fragments, often partially obscured by the blindfold that’s part of the assailant’s M.O. The ambiguous idea of the “female gaze” is most often applied to consensual sex, but Unbelievable understands that imagery is crucial to its overall project. Marie’s attacker took photos of her naked body, and went on to take many more of his subsequent targets. We never see them—only the concentrated fury on Wever’s face when Duvall finally locates the camera.

Adding to Unbelievable’s resonance is its status as true crime, a genre that women have a particular affinity for without often being well served by. As explored across popular culture, from documentaries to podcasts, true crime can channel the anxiety that comes with being born into the more vulnerable half of society. But it can also sensationalize, or even trivialize, the complex and misunderstood experience of trauma. Unbelievable is a riveting and, ultimately, vindicating watch in its own right, but it’s also a useful counterpoint to how such series are typically made.