Netflix's new drama Unbelievable is a different kind of crime show. Based on a real-life story (adapted from a 2015 ProPublica investigation) of a foster teenager who reported her rape and was subsequently pressured into recanting, while two different detectives investigate a series of sexual assaults with similar details across county lines, Unbelievable eschews dramatic twists and turns for a much more grounded narrative.
Starring Kaitlyn Dever as Marie, the teen whose violent and bracing sexual assault begins the series, Unbelievable is at times brutal to watch, particularly in the premiere. Full warning: The assault is shown, but the focus of the series is on the traumatic experience Marie goes through rather than the motivations or interior life of her rapist. Marie, who at the time is living in transitional housing for foster teens and who will soon graduate out of the system, takes her foster mother's advice and reports the crime to the police.
What happens next is not just an astounding firsthand account of what any person — but particularly a disenfranchised woman — has to face when reporting assault to the authorities, but also a sharp rebuttal of the metrics by which people, even loved ones, measure trauma. The two male detectives assigned to her case at first seem sympathetic, but on the word of two of her prior foster moms, they decide Marie must be making up the whole thing. The facts of the case don't line up, and it's easier to turn on Marie than do a little more digging. What motivates those mothers to speak out against a child they effectively raised? The fact that she didn't react like someone who had been raped; she's too calm, she's too willing to pretend to put the incident in the past. Perception is king on this show, and time and time again, how others read the victims sets up a heartbreaking fall of dominos.
Marie, in a desperate bid to move on with her life, recants her story. In a stupefying turn, the police charge Marie with reporting a false crime, which effectively shuts down any future she was planning on building for herself — only for her to turn on the TV one day to a news report of an assault that played out exactly like hers. The series really starts to simmer in Episode 2 with the introduction of two female detectives, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), who are each investigating a different rape case in two separate counties one state over. Karen, the young ingenue to Grace's hardened veteran, notices a pattern that others have missed because of a lack of communication between departments.
It becomes immediately apparent how significantly more equipped these women are to investigate a serial rapist than the detectives assigned to Marie were. Wever's Karen shows so much more patience and empathy with victim Amber (played by the incredible Danielle MacDonald) that you begin to wish Karen's was the face greeting everyone who has found themselves in this horrific situation. It's a performance that's sure to earn Wever another Emmy nomination. (Wever won Emmys in 2013 for Nurse Jackie and in 2018 for Godless.)
Karen and Grace's tentative partnership is in turns comedic, antagonistic, judgmental, and extremely supportive, and Wever and Collette's chemistry is pitch perfect. There are no sweeping monologues about what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated field, particularly one that's especially weighted against women. Rather, it's their steady determination and commitment to the investigation that demands their colleagues' (and the audience's) respect.
Every single aspect of the show is infused with the same energy. To some it will feel like a slow grind to watch these two women deal with the tedium of police work. But it's exactly this slow and inevitable build to the show's cathartic conclusion that makes Unbelievable such a satisfying binge. Unlike other crime shows that center around soap opera-style reveals and Reddit deep dives, Unbelievable centers first and foremost on the experiences of its female characters.
Through Marie we see how easily a life can be ruined by simply requesting the right to justice. Through Karen and Grace, we see what investigators should be, and we recognize how far a majority of the police force needs to evolve in order to effectively tackle sexual assault cases. Through the other victims, we see how little appearance, behavior, and age matter to a predator who is hunting a sense of power. Through their tentative connection with each other, we see how Marie and the others take control of their lives and move beyond the oversimplification of the word "victim." Ultimately, at the end of the series, women watching the show will see a possible future in which the benefits of reporting their rapes outweighs the costs.
Though the real-life crimes that inspired this series played out well before the #MeToo movement gained international attention, Unbelievable is perhaps one of the best encapsulations of the rage, fear, trauma, and blinding determination that sparked this movement. The show would be binge-worthy just based on the prowess of its cast, the delicate aggression of Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman's storytelling, and the plaintive but gorgeous cinematography. But what really makes Unbelievable live up to its name is that the series asks you to believe: in women, in rebuilding oppressive systems, in finding a path forward. And to be clear, the path before us isn't simple or easy, the obstacles to reporting rape and other crimes of sexual nature are still to this day, astronomical. But the women of Unbelievable make it feel like justice could be within our grasp.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Unbelievable is available to stream September 13 on Netflix.