Unbelievable is two separate ends of a tangled-up skein of yarn that you follow and follow until it eventually, satisfyingly meets in the middle. The ends are tattered and frayed and faded from sitting out in the sun and being batted around by a cat, but the longer you follow the string, the more whole it gets. When you get to that part in the middle, the frayed ends that you couldn’t help but catch a nail on are a thing of the past. It’s smooth and soft and flows together seamlessly into each other. You knew when you started it that it would get better, but you didn’t know how far you’d have to go…or how many snarls you’d have to untangle to get there. So is the same for Unbelievable.
Trigger warning — the first episode of Unbelievable is truly terrible. I don’t mean poorly done or uninteresting or subpar — I mean that it’s difficult to watch Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) get violated — first by a sexual predator, and then by countless people who don’t believe her — over and over again. Though the depiction of her sexual assault is not gratuitous, just be warned that it’s there. I was also worried about a Mindhunter-type situation, where we have these great female characters dangled in front of us, only to be subjected to a storyline about the men who take up space around them. Because of this AND the rage rage it filled me with, I almost gave up after one episode. I persevered, and my rage was replaced with more rage, but I’m a better person for it.
Unbelievable, based on a true story, tells the story of three women, across two separate timelines. We have Marie Adler, a young woman who reports a sexual assault and is essentially coerced into “admitting” that she lied about it by two egotistical, unsympathetic detectives who apparently never learned the phrase “believe women.” And then we also have seasoned detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and the less-experienced detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) as two officers who got put into each other’s orbit by accident, really, and discover they may be hunting the same serial rapist. The rage and desperation and sadness that you feel over Marie’s mistreatment and coinciding spiral into worse and worse luck is balanced by the hope that the detectives’ good, old-fashioned police work will catch a monster.
Dever owns every scene she’s in, a remarkable accomplishment for someone so young, but not a surprise, considering she did the same thing in Justified. Toni Collette charges into our lives and it seems like she’s going to take over the case and the show, but, just like when the arrest was made, she almost steps into the background and lets Merritt Wever take over. Wever uses a quiet confidence and reassurance that’s seldom seen in depictions of police officers, but it’s so powerful and effective. To a lot of these victims, her Detective Duvall is the first person who actually believes them, who sees them.
Wever and Collette combine to make what could have been a one-note procedural drama into what I’ll now measure all buddy-cop shows against from now on. They’re aided by a tight script that somehow manages to never become as depressing and heavy as the subject matter lends itself to. It was written and directed not exclusively but mostly by women, and it shows. One of the things that sets this series apart is how personal each scene feels, how delicately it’s being handled. This was a fresh take on the tired trope of the buddy-cop drama, and a big part of the reason is because, from beginning to end, women are in the forefront.
The main trio is aided by spectacular performances from everyone who surrounded them, from Dale Dickey’s RoseMarie to Annaleigh Ashford’s Lily to Brooke Smith’s Dara. The cast is made up of women and men of varying looks, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, and this includes the rape victims, something Hollywood doesn’t always do. Each is as real as the next.
On the complete opposite of the police spectrum from Rasmussen and Duvall, the two male detectives who Marie meets initially are just as clueless and problematic in the end as they are in the beginning. Clearly, they have learned nothing. You do get the impression that at least one of them — Detective Parker (Eric Lange) — somewhat sees the error of his ways after forensic evidence he can’t ignore (because it’s not a woman) proves that Marie’s been raped. It’s obvious that no matter how wrong he may feel he was, this detective has no idea what it’s like to navigate this world as a woman — the little things we do each day to keep ourselves safe that would never occur to someone “strong” at the top of the food chain, who (statistically speaking) doesn’t have to worry about being attacked in parking lots. Fair or not, Parker and Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke) are the epitome of why the MeToo movement exists, and they remind us why we fight in the first place. They’re spot-on portrayals of where we’ve come from and (hopefully) what we’ve left behind, with Rasmussen and Duvall the beacon of what’s to come.
We live in a world where women’s words don’t matter. We speak up about being assaulted, about being mistreated, about being violated. Even if people believe us, which isn’t all the time, our accusations are minimized. They’re treated as no big deal. This show gives all of the rapist’s victims (all compelling, but with an especially delicate, standout performance by Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’) as Amber) — and, in some small way, all of us — a voice.
This show just felt so real to me, I guess, and I wish that it didn’t. Women being mistreated. Men (and some women) not believing us. I wish I didn’t feel like shows like this had to exist, but they do. And I’m grateful that Unbelievable is one of them.
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Unbelievable is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Monica is a queer fangirl who lives in Pittsburgh with her wife and cat. She cohosts a Wynonna Earp podcast called There’s Something in the Heir, her favorite Buffy episode is “Doppelgangland,” and one of her favorite TV couples is Ben and Leslie. You can find her shouting about strong female characters and queer representation @lesbiyinzer on Twitter.