The following is a review of the Netflix mini-series Unbelievable.
Netflix’s Unbelievable is an eight-episode-long true-crime drama mini-series based primarily on an article titled ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape.’ Unbelievable dramatizes a series of rape cases from the Washington and Colorado areas that took place between 2008 and 2011. The series follows both Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a victim of sexual assault who is charged with making a false crime report, and two detectives — Grace Rasmussen (played by Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) — who are investigating the links between several rape cases from different areas. Though, heartbreakingly, her case is not on their radar.
Many of this year’s best television series, like When They See Us and Chernobyl, have been absolutely infuriating true stories. Watching two male detectives ask increasingly hostile questions to Marie Adler is just as infuriating as the most exasperating scenes in the two aforementioned shows. You see how the system breaks this young woman and how those around her question everything about what has happened. You sense that even Marie is starting to question her sanity, and it is easy to understand why. Because for no particularly strong reason senseless hearsay informs the local police department’s investigation, and, all of a sudden, the detectives are hounding a victim of abuse over any minor detail in her story that may have changed days after the event in question. The sexual assault is seen in these uncomfortable flashes that make you want to avert your eyes. As a result, having to hear her repeatedly describe the assault is difficult, and it only becomes tougher to watch Marie Adler’s story as the series continues.
Make no mistake, as has been established, Unbelievable is a very difficult show to watch. Other than the painful flashbacks, it’s almost unbearable listening to victim descriptions. But one of the reasons why the show isn’t overwhelmed by how painful and unbearable it is — one of the reasons why the show itself works as entertainment — is the buddy detective side of the series that shows that although some police departments have bad apples — like the ones encountered by Marie Adler — other detectives know how to handle these cases and calm and comfort victims at the same time. Although Rasmussen and Duvall are investigating these painful cases and interviewing victims, their approach to the victims is completely dissimilar from the approach chosen by the detectives that Adler encountered. Although it can still be a tough series to watch when it focuses on Rasmussen and Duvall, their approach is calming and their characters are entertaining and likable even though they themselves are very different from one another. Rasmussen is world-weary but, for the most part, relaxed, and the much more driven but comforting Duvall is still a little bit new to the profession.
Unbelievable takes its time to discuss or highlight the ways in which police technology works and what tests do what exactly. I greatly enjoyed seeing them point out how police departments don’t possess the enhancement skills on photographies and videos that other lesser detective-focused series have invented previously. On the flip side, however, I thought the very long lectures to an intern were much more hamfisted.
Elegantly played by Toni Collette and Merrit Wever, Rasmussen and Duvall are watchable and an undeniably entertaining buddy duo. Rasmussen and Duvall are just as, if not more, competent as their male counterparts, but their approach is different and empowered by a different energy. Rasmussen is a great figure of authority, and Duvall is an intelligent and hard-working detective. Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are both Emmy-winning actresses who, in their own ways, give touching performances throughout the limited series, but it is Kaitlyn Dever who gives the performance that you will probably remember the show for. I thought she played the quiet frustration in her character’s arc exceptionally well. I thought her uncertainty and anxiety as she was bullied by the police — when she was out of her depth — was very believable.
While Marie Adler’s half of the show is almost cripplingly uncomfortable and infuriating — though nonetheless well-made — the buddy duo keeps you hooked and entertained. Were it not for the fact that this series is based on a true crime that is devastating, I would want another season just so that I could watch Rasmussen and Duvall solve other cases. They are an exceptionally entertaining and compelling team. However, Unbelievable is an extraordinary show precisely because it masterfully juxtaposes and juggles their investigation with Marie Adler’s experiences. In doing so, the series examines issues with how detectives and the public deal with hearsay and victims of assault or abuse. There is no shortage of heartbreaking or infuriating limited series to watch — especially not this year — but Unbelievable is, nevertheless, one of the year’s very best series. It just so happens that this year television may be at its best when it infuriates you.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.