Tuesday, November 19, 2019


I recently watched Unbelievable, the eight-part series on Netflix.  I'm sure by now most everyone knows what it's about -- a series of rapes (a real case) that took place in Washington State and Colorado from 2008 to 2011.  The first attack involves a teenager named Marie, played by Kaitlyn Dever, who is raped in her apartment in Washington. Marie has no family and has been in the foster system her entire life, and despite some support from a couple of the foster parents she has had, has nobody truly to call her own to help see her through the rape's aftermath. Under pressure from the police, questioned repeatedly about the rape by them, doubted even by a previous foster mother who likes Marie but brings up "attention-getting" behavior she has done in the past, Marie starts to alter details about her rape story, even coming to doubt aspects of it herself.  Finally, the police investigating the case -- all male by the way, at least the lead detectives are -- wind up deciding her story isn't true and pressure her into retracting it.

Cut to three years later and a series of rapes that take place in different towns in Colorado.  Though it takes a while because different jurisdictions don't share information, detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen wind up working together on the case, and from that point on, the episodes go back and forth between the two of them conducting their investigation and the difficult life Marie has in Washington State in the aftermath of her retraction and a charge leveled at her by the police for filing a false report.  Until nearly the very end of the series, she is not even aware that anybody else has been raped by someone using the same M.O. that he used on her and that police (with help, towards the end, from the FBI) are on the trail of the rapist.

Unbelievable is absorbing from start to finish.  Across the board, it works, the writing, the directing, the acting.  None of that is surprising when you see who worked on it: scripts by 
Susannah Grant (who did the Erin Brockovich screenplay, among others), Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman; episodes directed by Grant, TV veteran Michael Dinner, and Lisa Chodolenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright).  The two lead detectives are played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette.

Seeing a series with a complicated case that spans a number of years with several victims and with two detectives on the case, it's hard to watch Unbelievable and not have True Detective cross your mind, and what I couldn't help but think is how Unbelievable is a procedural that gets its job done without the ponderousness of the HBO show.  Granted, one is fiction and one tells a true-crime tale.  True Detective is allowed stylistic flourishes (Is longeurs a better way to describe them?) that Unbelievable is not.  But what I'm getting at here is what a pleasure it is to watch a detective investigation unfold as it does in Unbelievable and not have to endure the big swings at SIGNIFICANCE that True Detective belabors you with.  The weight and shape of time, the unreliability and burden of memory -- anyone who's watched True Detective knows how hard, how very hard, that show tries.  By contrast, Unbelievable lets it significance come at you naturally, through the detailed and very specific storytelling and through what every plausible and unaffected actor in the cast brings to that story, and because of that, meaning surfaces in Unbelievable without strain.  It lets you come to it, doesn't hammer you over the head with anything.  But there's a lot going on in Unbelievable, in addition to its central core of an investigation, quite a lot, and I could watch it again for its nuances.

It's well worth the time spent with it.

1 comment:

E. Ellis said...

Here is an excellent article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty from a recent issue of The Atlantic about sexual assaults.

It should be must reading of everyone involved in sexual assault investigations and by law enforcement administrators and US federal politicians across the US.


E. Ellis