I’m going to tell you what Netflix’s Unbelievable is about. At that point, there’s a good chance that you’re going to wince or shiver and say the show sounds too dark or depressing for your current mood, accompanied probably by a mention of when you stopped watching The Handmaid’s Tale because it simply became “too much.”
I’ve seen it happen a few times already.
Unbelievable is an eight-episode limited series focusing on a pair of detectives tracking a serial rapist, while at the same time following one of the victims in the aftermath of her attack.
Before I lose you, allow me to reframe: Mindhunter is a show about a team of FBI agents tracking and interrogating serial killers, but it’s just as much about the nature of obsession and the logistics of the investigative process, using a period setting to show the flaws in that process and the hopes for progress and justice. Think of Unbelievable as a female-centric version of Mindhunter, substituting sexual assault for murder (but not in a glib way), a show about process and the failings of the justice system, but also pointing to where we can find hope in a bleak situation.
Created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, Unbelievable is remarkably adroit, striking a tone that easily could have wallowed in misery instead. Yes, it’s hard to watch at times, especially in its opening installment, but it’s simultaneously smart, carefully crafted, occasionally funny and told with a narrative economy I consistently admired. Every performance hits, and, but for a final installment plagued by over-resolution and contrivance, it might have ranked among my top shows of the year.
The opening installment, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, focuses on Kaitlyn Dever’s Marie, a teen trying to find stability after growing up bounced around the foster system. The nightmare of waking in the early morning to an intruder in her apartment only worsens with each step of the investigation that Marie is forced to go through. There are invasive and repetitive interviews, poorly presented medical tests and a pair of detectives — Eric Lange and Bill Fagerbakke expertly embodying a kind of long-entrenched and ineffectual patriarchy — who go from blandly sympathetic to increasingly skeptical as her story shifts in small ways. It’s a system that’s almost designed to fail people like Marie.
We also meet Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), whose investigation into the rape of another young woman (Danielle Macdonald’s Amber) leads her to an open case in a different jurisdiction, one with similar details including a lack of physical evidence and particular behavioral patterns in the perp. Duvall reaches out to the investigator on that case (Toni Collette’s Detective Grace Rasmussen) and, as they realize that their two cases may be pieces of a horrifying puzzle, they set up a task force that is confronted with many of the same impediments that hurt Marie.
Many limited series of this type would have been better handled as a single episode of a broadcast procedural. But that’s not the case here; I never felt that the scope of the narrative in Unbelievable should have been contained to an hour of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. There’s just enough mystery distributed across each episode to keep viewers invested — at least those who don’t rush off for a spoiler-packed read of the Pulitzer-winning ProPublica article that inspired the series. And I consistently appreciated the importance the series puts on giving voice to victims and police alike. The drama’s not especially subtle underlying theme concerns the importance of listening and believing — see, the title has a double meaning — and Unbelievable honors its own message.
Rasmussen and Duvall are great, fully realized parts, and Collette and Wever thrive because neither detective is boiled down to a too-predictable archetype. Maybe on the surface Duvall is the Empathetic Cop and Rasmussen is the Tough-as-Nails Cop, but neither the characters nor the actors ever feel restricted. I especially enjoyed the way the series presents Duvall’s matter-of-fact religious faith and Rasmussen’s skeptical-but-not-hostile agnosticism, and the way that each detective is given a bland, supportive spouse of the underwritten sort that male cops have been given on the big and small screen for eons. Rasmussen and Duvall are well-rounded characters capable of caustic edge and sentiment and even, despite the harrowing circumstances, humor.
Like Mindhunter, Unbelievable is a show that lives in its conversations, whether in a cramped car on a stakeout or in a precinct pen throwing around suspects and theories. Yes, there are times that the dialogue in Unbelievable comes across as lifted from a journalistic feature, complete with well-researched statistics and carefully considered thesis statements, but Wever and Collette are so comfortable throughout that it didn’t bother me until that last episode. These characters and their partnership are good enough that I found myself wishing they could be paired on future cases in future seasons, real events be darned.
Dever, having a moment thanks to Booksmart but thoroughly on TV fans’ radars since Justified, is every bit the equal of her two Emmy-winning co-stars. Marie has the restraint of a person who has stopped expecting good things to happen to her and, thus, can’t simply be crushed by a latest chapter of adversity. That lets Dever play her heartbreak in quiet and deepening shadings, never pandering for outrage. The series offers varied depictions of trauma, and although Dever may be its primary anchor, each of the women at the heart of the other individual cases has sufficient depth for the performances by Macdonald, Annaleigh Ashford and others to register strongly.
Filling out the impressive ensemble, Elizabeth Marvel, Liza Lapira, Brent Sexton, Aaron Staton, Dale Dickey, Brooke Smith and Bridget Everett all add texture around the edges.
The directors, with Michael Dinner and Grant following Cholodenko’s work on the first three episodes, accentuate performance without sacrificing pacing. Episodes might seem to be pausing for long confessions or exchanges, but they rarely exceed 50 minutes, and they cut between parallel stories cleverly. Even my disappointment in the final episode could just be reflective of a personal preference for the messy and under-resolved, and not a failing of a show that never claimed it wasn’t interested in making and underlining certain points about empathy, determination and the ways we can all be better to each other, whether as cops, loved ones or friends. Those points are part of why, for a series that sounds so bleak and unpleasant, Unbelievable ends up being surprisingly satisfying.
Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever
Creators: Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman
Showrunner: Susannah Grant
Directors: Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, Susannah Grant
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)