Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ is Believably Good and Unbelievably Frustrating
If years of Detective Olivia Benson’s empathy toward rape victims on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit lulled us into believing the criminal-justice system has come a long way in prosecuting sex crimes, Netflix’s new miniseries Unbelievable will quickly remind you otherwise. When it comes to police work, a bit of luck, whether bad or good, may mean more than all the DNA testing, investigative protocols, and evidence in the world.
Based on a true story, Unbelievable follows two parallel rape investigations separated by 1300 miles. In one, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), is assaulted twice: once by the rapist and next by the investigation into her attack. Beginning with the clinical description of evidence collection in the hospital to the interrogation after the attack, the police treat Marie more like an object than a human victim.
In an all-too-familiar scene of police questioning that leads to victim fatigue and confusion, Marie winds up in a situation where they question her recall and motive for reporting the rape. Her nightmare continues as she moves from being a victim to a defendant facing charges pressed by the same police officers who the department assigns to her case. As circumstances and the criminal-justice system batter her repeatedly, we watch in disbelief as she loses her foster system transitional-living apartment, her job, family, and friends, all while trying to do the right thing.
In contrast, your new favorite TV cops Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merrit Wever) lead the second investigation. Their characters are empathetic and understanding toward victims while they develop a keen profile of the rapist and doggedly hunt down leads.
Over eight episodes of Unbelievable, directed and written by a rotating subset of the executive producers, the intertwined stories unfold and roll back on themselves. The details of different attacks and missed clues across various crime scenes and police departments become more and more multi-layered as Rasmussen and Duvall, detectives from two different city police departments, connect their investigations based on a similarity suggested by Duvall’s husband, a colleague of Rasmussen’s.
Duvall approaches Rasmussen, a tough-talking, 1970’s El Camino-driving detective with years under her belt, with the idea that two unsolved rape cases might be related. After sharing details, Rasmussen agrees and invites Duvall to join her at her well-equipped police station. The two get down to business with a small team including veteran detective, RoseMarie (Dale Dickey), two young interns, and FBI special agent Billy Taggart (Scott Lawrence). Through police work and a little luck, the team discovers several more victims in close proximity who a rapist with the same modus operandi attacked.
Working every angle, the team watches and codes hours of surveillance video, connects prior domestic violence charges to possible suspects, tracks down similar cases (including a series of rapes that occurred years earlier in Kansas), and eventually connects a suspicious vehicle to several of the cases. After arresting a suspect, the show reveals a connection between the two parallel investigations. The effect of police work, whether good or bad, just like luck, means all the difference in the world for Marie Adler.