By: Bill Cushing – Oct. 2019
Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ is the streaming network’s latest bingeworthy drama. It stars Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever as two detectives investigating a series of sexual assaults. But even though they are the series top billed stars, they don’t even appear in the first episode.
The first hour (and most of the series) belongs to Kaitlyn Dever, an incredibly talented young actress who plays Lynnwood, Washington teen Marie Adler. As Marie, her life is scarred twice. Once by the brutal crime she suffers, and then again by the doubt and mistrust thrust upon her by the police and her community. She is forced to endure telling what happened to her over and over and over again to the police. In her obvious distress, her story differs a little at times, causing the police to question what actually happened. She eventually, after being bullied by the two detectives investigating the crime, recants her story.
By the way, this crime actually happened. It was written about in a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape,’ by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong and discussed in the ‘This American Life’ podcast episode ‘Anatomy of Doubt,’ both of which served as the basis for this series. Both the article and the podcast state plainly, from the beginning, that whether the crime they’ll be discussing really occurred is not up for debate. It definitely did.
‘Unbelievable’ does things differently from many crime dramas. Unlike other shows, we see the crime almost entirely from Marie’s perspective. We see what happened to her, and how it lingers, and also the violations that came after. Executive producer, Susannah Grant, is much more interested in the survivor’s point of view.
Beginning in episode two, the series jumps ahead three years and shifts locations to Colorado, where we meet Detectives Karen Duvall (Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Collette), based on real-life detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot. They work in different precincts but are brought together by the similarities in the rape cases they’re investigating. Eventually tying them together and attributing them to the work of a serial rapist.
The contrast between the investigation in Washington, and the investigation in Colorado is striking. Duvall and Rasmussen’s interviews are conducted with gentleness and empathy. When one woman named Sarah tells Rasmussen and Duvall that she doesn’t remember many details about the assault, Rasmussen quickly reassures her, telling her that it’s self-defense, that it’s common, that she shouldn’t apologize for doing what she had to do in order to feel safe. Later Rasmussen tells Duvall that being questioned about the rape by yet another stranger with a badge may do more harm than good.
Watching the scene, realizing that even the kind, soft-spoken Duvall may have unintentionally traumatized Sarah further with her single well-intentioned question, it makes you understand what Marie had to endure. Describing her assault over and over, in painstaking detail, to a constantly rotating carousel of mostly male strangers who thought she was making it all up. The story is presented brilliantly, and you realize that the kindness and compassion that Duvall and Rasmussen conducted themselves with was sorely lacking from Marie’s painful experience with investigators and most definitely led to her confusion with details.
All three leads deliver powerhouse performances, with Wever and Collette they play their roles so well that it feels like it isn’t the first time they’ve played these characters.
I don’t want to give more details and ruin it for you. It’s better for you to experience this important and riveting story unfold on your own. But I will say that although this is a story about a sexual assault, it’s also a story about survival. It’s about the failure of the system, the unwavering pursuit of justice. But most importantly, it lets these women be more than the worst thing that happens to them. This is not a series about reliving trauma, but about healing from it.
‘Unbelievable’ is available to stream on Netflix.
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