Creators: Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, Merritt Wever
By Morgan Roberts
Trigger warning: This article covers a series that heavily discusses sexual assault and rape. Please proceed with caution.
People have always been fascinated with true crime. But since the rise of the Internet and creation of the “Law & Order” television franchise, the space to indulge in true crime has expanded exponentially.
But if we talk about and consider watching true crime during this time, the one series we should be focusing on is Netflix’s “Unbelievable.” It is not an easy watch, and personally I have had to talk a number of people into watching past episode one.
The series follows Marie (a superb Kaitlyn Dever) who is trying to start out on her own following years in the foster care system. But her attempts to build a new life are demolished following a home invasion and rape. We watch Marie become interrogated for her own sexual assault. We see as those around doubt her truth because she does not act the way one would expect a rape survivor to act. That is how the series starts. It is heavy.
We then shift from Marie to Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) who goes to investigate a rape of a college student. She is empathetic but methodical as she attempts to gather evidence to help this survivor. Duvall is not like the male detectives we saw with Marie. She is interested in catching the bad guy and not trying to dismiss the story of a young woman.
During the course of her investigation, she learns that her assailant might be more seasoned than thought. Duvall meets Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). Rasmussen is working her own rape case. Rasmussen is deeply impacted by the women that she is aiming to serve. Together, the pair go down a dark path to do all they can to catch a serial rapist.
“Women tend to be victims in true crime stories. So, why not have women shape that narrative…The writing of the show is phenomenal as it does a wonderful job of propelling a story while humanizing trauma. “
The series is truly incredible. I do not say that lightly and I am a serious true crime fan, (The podcasts I subscribe to easily demonstrate that). But, “Unbelievable” is so much more than a true crime series. We see Duvall and Rasmussen working every angle to bring a rapist to justice, and we see Marie struggle to live in a world where she was assaulted and no one believes her. While we wish we live in the space of two female detectives fighting for justice, we find that there are far too many Maries in the world. Survivors who are belittled, doubted, ostracized, and revictimized by the people who should be their supports.
There are many things that struck me about this mini-series. For a start, the entire narrative is told from the survivors’ and investigators’ narratives. Not from the criminal’s narrative. It was this perspective shift that took me for a loop, and I was not expecting to feel both rage and hopeful because of this shift. I think that shift came from the fact that there were women directing and writing this series. Women tend to be victims in true crime stories. So, why not have women shape that narrative.
The writing of the show is phenomenal, as it does a wonderful job of propelling a story while humanizing trauma. But it is the acting that truly propels those areas. Wever and Collette are a dynamic duo. Wever is her most charming while Collette is her toughest, most rageful self. They work well together and bring out the best in one another.
The star of this series, in my opinion, is Dever. Trauma is difficult to portray. We look for those stereotypical stages of grief, but trauma is so much more than that. Trauma moves us from our thinking brain (frontal cortex) to our survivor brain (limbic system). I spent a lot of money on a Master’s degree to work as a therapist, and I have taken trauma-informed therapy classes.
“Unbelievable” is not an easy watch. Yet, it is so necessary. It does amazing work by shifting the focus of the narrative. The actresses involved give career-defining performances.”
We learned so much that trauma does not follow a trajectory. Dever does an amazing job of showing that, and not in a way that over-compensated for the viewer’s expectations or as a caricature of trauma. You don’t feel rage necessarily, you don’t feel frustration. More than anything, you feel her emotions exist in a place where she can’t describe them. To be able to act in that place, to bring you to that place shows a level of acting many miles ahead.
I’ll also say, at one point, Marie does see a therapist – played by the great Brooke Smith. I am very critical of therapy in films and television. This is the best I have ever seen, as it was so humanizing and normalizing. Smith and Dever together are superb.
“Unbelievable” is not an easy watch. Yet, it is so necessary. It does amazing work by shifting the focus of the narrative. The actresses involved give career-defining performances. If you find yourself ready to dive into this, one promise I make is that there is closure at the end of the day. The makers of “Unbelievable” don’t let this piece fall into a “tragedy-porn” genre. Instead, they tell a compelling, heartbreaking story with perseverance and hope throughout.