Illustrations by Maria Alconada Brooks. Photos by Beth Dubber/Netflix.
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Chasing bad guys is gripping. Grilling accomplices is enticing. Uncovering the smoking gun — finally, theatrically — is electrifying. We experience these crime-story thrills secondhand when we watch police procedurals, and the best of the genre can leave devotees breathless.
“Unbelievable,” a new Netflix limited series available Friday, is different. The story opens with an 18-year-old, Marie Adler, who reports being raped at knifepoint by a masked intruder who broke into her Washington state apartment. Detectives (in this case, men) come to doubt her account and prod her to recant. She does. A few years later, two female detectives from different Colorado police departments team up to investigate rape cases that follow a similar pattern. Ultimately, Adler’s path, and that of the detectives, converge.
Strictly speaking, the series is a police procedural, but minus bluster or brinkmanship. It’s quiet, it’s stirring, it’s astute and it’s inspired by true events. Above all, it is honest in its depiction of sexual violence, trauma and the cruelties — some inadvertent — and blunders of rape investigations. “Unbelievable” is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article published in December 2015 by the Marshall Project and ProPublica. Susannah Grant, the series’s showrunner, adapted the article for television with a team that included Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon.
“In addition to being the best, most in-depth investigative journalism that I’d come across,” says Sarah Timberman, who also served as a showrunner, the article “presented these three pretty remarkable women and also had broad societal implications.”
In a genre that often hews to dichotomies — good cop, bad cop; victim, perpetrator; right, wrong — “Unbelievable” is concerned with three-dimensionality, humanness, shades of gray.
Marie Adler is based on a real woman who grew up in foster care, and before that, experienced a litany of abuses. (“She remembers being hungry and eating dog food”; “She was sexually and physically abused” — these snippets come from a report on her life, written by a mental health expert and quoted in the article.) After entering the system, she withstood a series of upheavals; she was shuttled from home to home. These facts are nodded to in “Unbelievable,” sparingly but resonantly.
Kaitlyn Dever, of “Booksmart” fame, plays Adler. Two Emmy Award-winning actresses play the female detectives, Karen Duvall (an exemplary Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette, talented as ever). Duvall and Rasmussen are respectively inspired by real-life Detective Stacy Galbraith of the Golden, Colo. Police Department and Detective Edna Hendershot of the Westminster, Colo., PD.
Several moments lifted from the article are rendered gracefully in the series. Take a scene in a car, about 11 minutes into Episode 2, where Detective Duvall collects DNA evidence from a rape victim. Duvall leans in close, using long cotton swabs to brush the student’s face. She is gentle yet thorough, simultaneously projecting empathy and professionalism.
“Isn’t that a beautiful moment?” says director Lisa Cholodenko.
Reader, it is.
What isn’t beautiful: the wearying experience of watching Adler, who is 18 when she reports her assault in 2008, being questioned repeatedly, prompted again and again to recount the sequence of events, and then interrogated when, in the retelling, she flubs some of the details.
“She was a young woman, but you could also say she was a girl. She was 18, sitting in a room with grown-up, male cops, being asked those questions,” Timberman says. “We got to see the show on a big screen, and watching those interrogation scenes again, I was moved in a different way. I felt some of the discomfort that I felt watching ‘When They See Us’” — the Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five — “and that sense of just the outrage that this is how we go about investigating sexual assault, and we don’t need to. We can do so much better.”
By the end of the first episode, which follows, nearly beat by beat, many of the facts outlined in the Marshall Project-ProPublica article, Adler has rescinded her report. She lives in an apartment complex for young people who’d spent their childhoods in foster care; there, after recanting, she’s forced to tell her peers that she lied about the rape allegations.
“The first episode is almost more tragic and sad than anything else,” says Cholodenko. It’s “an investigation gone wrong in the way that this woman was beaten down.”
Too many crime stories, true or fictional, fall into the trap of objectifying or minimizing victims. In “Unbelievable,” those who’ve been harmed aren’t peripheral. Like a car with twin engines, the women who were violated power half the story; the detectives power the other.
What drew Cholodenko to this project, she says, was thinking about how “to get under the skin and into the psyche of these victims.”
One way that’s achieved is by frequently depicting Adler, who’d already endured childhood strife and abandonment, alone after the rape. Dever hauntingly, wordlessly illustrates the deepening of her character’s isolation.
“Her needs have not been met yet again. She’s been heartbroken yet again. So, her aloneness gets increasingly lonely,” says Grant, who, along with writing and running the series, at times directed. Grant has an 18-year-old son with whom she watched the first three episodes. “He loves horror movies — he’s been to a lot of horror movies — he said he’s never been more scared in a movie than in the scenes of Kaitlyn alone. He said he was absolutely terrified for her physically and emotionally.”
“She’s been so betrayed and alienated, and she’s become so distrustful of people,” Cholodenko adds, “that in a way being with herself, turning into herself and isolating herself, is the best option, it’s the only thing that feels sort of safe, in this hideous way.”
While Adler is often solitary, detectives Duvall and Rasmussen are driven together by the correlations between their cases. The pair occasionally aggravate one another, in part because their experiences and temperaments diverge. Wever’s Duvall is tenderhearted and meticulous, and in a sense she has something to prove — Collette’s character is the hard-driving, more experienced cop. Yet throughout the series’s eight episodes, they come to comprehend, and even admire, one another. But don’t expect the trite, odd couple dynamic reminiscent of buddy-cop comedy. What they have is denser. Timberman calls it a “delicately calibrated relationship.”
There are moments, Cholodenko says, “that are really poignant. They’re kind of funny, they’re kind of human. They’re about power between people, between women, people trying to hold on to what’s theirs. And it’s really about them letting go of holding on to what’s theirs.”
What they can’t let go of, at least not entirely, is the emotional toll exacted by their careers.
“It’s hard work, what they do,” Grant says. “Deciding to step up and be the person that’s going to look at the really ugly aspects of human nature — there’s a lot that’s really sacrificial about that, and there’s a cost to it, there’s a human cost.”
“They don’t just wash it off,” she adds. “They carry it with them.”
“Unbelievable” is less whodunit and more why does it keep happening? Surely, the detectives are obsessed with identifying and apprehending the perpetrator; admittedly, a large slice of screen time is dedicated to running down leads and connecting dots. But thematically, the series seems to probe how a criminal was able to get away again and again — and why our mechanisms for investigating sexual assault are so faulty.
Light spoilers lay ahead, so avert your eyes if you’d like. The serial rapist in this story attacks women across states and towns, never striking in the same area twice. Police departments don’t routinely communicate, so they’re unaware of the similarities between the crimes. Duvall only learns that her rape case in Golden mirrors Rasmussen’s in Westminster because of dumb luck. Her husband, also a cop, works with Rasmussen and alerts his wife to the cases’ parallels.
But “mistakes aren’t limited to detectives and police departments,” Timberman says. “This show explores all of the misconceptions that swirl around the issue of sexual assault.”
Late in the series, a lawyer says, “No one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying, or someone who says he was carjacked. Doesn’t happen. But when it comes to sexual assault …” he trails off, never completing the sentence. The message is received.
Back when Wever first received scripts for “Unbelievable,” she dug into the story on a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York. She told Entertainment Weekly that she kept rising to walk the aisles, and her cheeks reddened.
“The thing I realized, I think yesterday,” Wever told me, “about that experience on the plane when I just tore through all the material and then started flushing and pacing — something in me started running, not running away, but like an engine.”
“I think part of that was fury,” she adds. Anger. “I just didn’t know it yet.”