Merritt Wever and Toni Collette are a true-crime dream team in Netflix's new detective drama
Unbelievable’s Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) is mad. She and fellow Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) have been investigating a serial rapist for months, and progress is painfully slow. When FBI agent Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence) seems to downplay a potential lead, Grace explodes. “No one is looking at this data about violence against women! I mean, what if men were raped at the rate women are?” she asks Karen. “What if Taggart were afraid that someone was going to f— him in the ass when he’s walking home from the grocery store at night?… Where is his outrage?”
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article and created by Oscar-nominated writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Unbelievable is a sturdy true-crime drama, but where it excels is as an examination of the gap between the male and female experience. When a teenager named Marie (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) reports being raped in her Lynnwood, Washington, apartment, it doesn’t take long for police — and even Marie’s former foster mother Judith (Elizabeth Marvel) — to start doubting her story. After all, what’s more likely — that a masked man methodically terrorized Marie at knifepoint, or that the troubled teen, who had been known to act out, made it all up for attention?
The action then jumps forward three years to Colorado, where Detective Rasmussen and Duvall are investigating two separate but very similar rapes. When Grace and Karen talk to the survivors — who each live alone and say their attacker took pictures of them and made them shower after the assault — they listen. When a victim feels guilty for blocking out details of her attack, Grace and Karen say things like, “Please don’t apologize for doing what you needed to do to feel safe.” They understand in a way that their male colleagues, quite frankly, cannot.
Over the course of eight episodes, the narrative hops back and forth between 2008, where Marie’s life starts to spiral after she’s charged with making a false report, and 2011, as Grace and Karen combine their investigations and begin reworking unsolved rape cases for leads. Wever is a marvel as Detective Duvall, a soft-spoken woman of faith who masterfully uses the silence of listening to get anyone — a survivor or a suspect — to talk. Collette is somewhat less nuanced as Detective Rasmussen, a brusque, f-bomb dropping cynic, but the actress brings a believable frustration and anger to her character’s bluster. Dever, meanwhile, gives another exceptional performance as Marie, a young woman both hardened and broken by years of neglect.
New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum once likened Law & Order: SVU to a “fantasy” where “the police are eternally in the rape victim’s corner” — and at times, Unbelievable feels akin to wish-fulfillment, too, though it’s all based in truth. Grant, who writes and directs several episodes, has created a series that is deeply and unapologetically female. The supporting cast is like a supergroup of “Oh, I love her!” characters actresses: Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland); Annaleigh Ashford (American Crime Story); Brooke Smith (Grey’s Anatomy); Dale Dickey (Claws); Liza Lapira (NCIS).
Though it explores the systematic biases facing sexual assault survivors, Unbelievable avoids pedantry and “men bad, women good” generalizations. Grace and Karen make plenty of mistakes, and the male detectives who investigate Marie’s case aren’t painted as villains — they are generally decent cops with blind spots, much like the system they work for. It is not a spoiler to say that watching Unbelievable is an extremely satisfying experience — not just for its storytelling, but for its depiction of women who confront their reality rather than succumbing to it. Grade: B+
Unbelievable premieres Sept. 13 on Netflix