This is a bit awkward. Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about why I was giving up watching TV shows that glorified bad police behavior (e.g. reruns of “NYPD Blue”). Now, here I am, about to write a review of a streaming mini-series that centers on cops. The show is “Unbelievable,” and what makes it different is that it gives us views of both good cops and bad cops — but even the latter aren’t slamming suspects against the wall, using racial epithets, or planting evidence.
The story starts in Washington state in 2008, where Marie — played beautifully by Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart,” “Justified”) — has been brutally raped in her own apartment. The two male detectives assigned to the case clearly don’t know how to handle such a sensitive situation. They force Marie to tell her story over and over again, then make a big deal out of any details she’s forgotten or changed. Even the nurses at the hospital where she’s taken for a rape kit treat her coldly, ignoring the obvious trauma she’s been through, both physical and mental.
Because of Marie’s troubled past — she’s been in and out of foster homes her whole life — she keeps her guard up, an aloofness that the detectives read as deception instead of as a symptom of the horrific experience she’s been through. Worse for her, the rapist was meticulous and left behind no evidence whatsoever. As the cops pick at her story, they decide there was no sexual assault and, to teach her a lesson, charge Marie with lying to the police and filing a false report.
Three years later, a woman in Colorado (Amber, played by Danielle Macdonald) is raped by someone who also leaves no evidence behind. This time, the detective who gets the call, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), knows how to develop a rapport with the victim while keeping the other cops at the scene in line. Duvall’s compassionate attention helps her glean vital information, but nothing hard and fast to go on.
Around the same time, yet another woman in Colorado (Lilly, portrayed by Annaleigh Ashford) is raped by a man with the same modus operandi. In that jurisdiction, the case goes to Det. Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), another veteran who seems all-business and tough on the outside, but who has genuine empathy for the injured party. Despite a system that wasn’t set up for information-sharing between police departments, the two female detectives finally get together and work on their similar cases with a team of forensic analysts and investigators helping them hunt for what they are sure is a serial rapist.
There are several elements that make “Unbelievable” so compelling. First is the acting, which is just as good as you’d expect from a cast led by Dever, Wever, and Collette. Second is the way it shows the diligent investigative work that goes into breaking cases like these, and the amount of time it takes — unlike episodic television, there’s no capture of the bad guy just as each hour ends. The third is the absolute relatability of the female survivors, whose lives have been irreparably harmed — in Marie’s case, not just by the rapist, but by the system.
“Unbelievable” was developed by Ayelet Waldman (who guested on my radio show in 2009), best-selling novelist Michael Chabon (her husband), and Susannah Grant (Oscar-nominated for her “Erin Brockovich” screenplay) from a 2015 ProPublica article by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong.
I missed “Unbelievable” when it was first released on Netflix last fall. It was just one of those shows that never made its way into my queue until recently. But now, having given my full attention to all eight episodes, I highly recommend it as not just great television, but as an antidote to the rest of the cops-as-entertainment world.
I give “Unbelievable” a 9 out of 10.