Man, this was such a gripping series to watch and probably the best true crime series I have seen since Mindunter. I’m disgusted with TV shows that aggrandize and elevate law enforcement as high and mighty heroes — bending the rules, busting heads, abusing their authority, and such. However, this show isn’t like some of those shows; it doesn’t try to glamorize police work — it keeps things real and avoids cheap tricks for entertainment purposes.
Unbelievable is the true story of a serial rapist who escaped detection for many years. The show has two narrative timelines. One timeline; The first rape victim, a young girl named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), is pressured by the police to recant her story. The detectives assigned to her case find inconsistencies in her statement and believe she is making the whole thing up. The detectives are skeptical of Marie from the beginning and continuously badger her, poke holes, and undermine her account until they get her to recant the story of her rape.
The second timeline narrative focuses on two female detectives from different jurisdictions investigating individual rape cases. These two detectives find similarities in their respective cases, linking their evidence and realizing that they likely have a serial rapist at hand, so they begin to collaborate to expand their investigations. The story jumps forward and back in time from 2008-2011, between Colorado and Washington State.
Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Detective Karen Duvall (Merrit Wever) are excellent here. Outstanding performances by these fantastic actors. We get to see two completely different police processes, where the male detectives approach Marie’s case with skepticism. The female detectives approach victims from a different perspective than the male cops and connect with victims on a deeper, more humane level. The male detectives are not depicted as bad guys or bad cops per se. There is just simply a lack of empathy from them, rooted in systematic biases toward sexual assault victims.
This 8-episode limited series is based on a 2015 ProPublica article detailing Marie’s story and the investigation into the serial rapist. The article went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The show stays exceptionally close to the facts of the case exposed by the article. Every episode is all about police procedure and the mundane nature of police work. We see these two detectives slowly going through all the evidence, the slow burn of finding evidence after evidence and not going anywhere with it, and the failure of any of their evidence to materialize into solid leads.
We get to see how meticulous this serial rapist was in avoiding detection. He was very concerned about forensics — he kept a textbook about police procedures and how they operated during crime scenes. He would use the forensics textbook to design his crimes around weaknesses in forensic techniques. However, the one common denominator from victim to victim was that he would take pictures of each victim and make them all shower and clean themselves after the sexual assault.
At the same time, Unbelievable goes beyond catching the serial rapist; it is all about the victim and her redemption. Marie has been in foster care for most of her life, living in and out of foster homes. And by the time of her assault, she was already aging out of foster care and lived in an assisted living, group housing type of complex. Marie is fragile, barely holding her life together, which everyone uses against her to undermine the veracity of her assault. Eventually, the system turns on Marie and charges her with making a false statement, further pushing her life into a chaotic state. I guess these incompetent cops felt that charging her would teach Marie a lesson and make an example out of her, sending a message to any future false rape accusations.
There are many upsetting and disturbing moments in the show. The rape-exam scenes were intrusive and awkward to watch, but I’m glad they were shown. There is a level of guilt and shame in Marie as they examine her. Kaitlyn Dever does an outstanding job displaying her pain and suffering throughout the series, and she does it mostly with her facial gestures and body language. The show clearly portrays the ripple effects sexual assaults can have on victims. You can’t help but feel angry and frustrated with the system, and you can easily understand Marie’s distrust of the system. She is betrayed by the same people and system who should have protected her.
The performances across the board are all excellent. Eric Lange (Detective Parker) is noteworthy as the original cop who takes on Marie’s case and messes up the investigation. Annaleigh Ashford (Lilly) is authentic and genuine as an emotionally and physically wounded survivor of the serial rapist. Danielle Macdonald (Amber) is compelling and heartbreaking as another sexual assault victim attempting to carry on with her life.
Unbelievable is a stunning piece to watch, a thought-provoking series in the same league as When They See Us. Superb storytelling, it packs a strong emotional punch, and I was beyond captivated with every single episode.
Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿
UNBELIEVABLE (2019). Streaming on NETFLIX