This article references sexual assault and violence that may be uncomfortable for some readers.
“Based on True Events No One Believed.” This is the tagline for “Unbelievable,” a recently released Netflix miniseries that tells the adjacent stories of a teenage girl assaulted in Washington and the detectives hunting her serial rapist in Colorado. The teenage girl, identified by her middle name Marie, was coerced into taking back her statement by local authorities and consequently sued by the police department for lying.
“Unbelievable” is based, almost word for word, on an article published by the Marshall Project, a non-profit online journal that investigates criminal justice issues. Through interviews with Marie, detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot from Colorado and two of Marie’s former foster mothers, the article clearly outlines the negligence and cruelty Marie experienced at the hands of police in Washington, Sergeant Jeffrey Mason and Jerry Rittgarn.
The television show utilizes the same back-and-forth trajectory as the article, contrasting the thorough and compassionate tactics Galbraith and Hendershot used in their investigation of the injustice Marie experienced with the police department.
Created by screenwriter and director Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), who is known for bitingly sharp dialogue and feminist viewpoints on societal injustice, “Unbelievable” already appears promising on paper. Acclaimed authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman also lend a hand at writing and production. Grant, independent filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) and television producer and director Michael Dinner (“Justified”) split directorial duties. Veteran actors Toni Collette (“Hereditary) and Merritt Waever (“Nurse Jackie”) play the detectives, along with rising star Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”) as Marie.
With all of this talent, one has high hopes for “Unbelievable.” The show bears resemblance to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix offering “When They See Us,” an examination of police corruption in the case of the Central Park Five. Although “When They See Us” addresses racism and police brutality instead of sexual violence, both shows utilize gritty realism, relatable characters and step-by-step procedurals of the inner workings of police to appeal to viewers’ sympathies. With endless streaming services coming out of the woodwork and platforms fighting over the rights to popular older programs, many new shows are getting lost in the chaos. But “Unbelievable” is not a show to forget in your endless Netflix queue.
The first episode of “Unbelievable” already feels like a fresh take on crime television, with an eerily realistic examination of Marie’s assault and her journey from the first call for help to the police station. The viewer follows Marie in near-real time as she takes each bureaucratic step to reporting her rape, with frequent flashbacks to the incident. Delightfully bubbly and genuine as a shy high school student in “Booksmart,” Dever shows her incredible range with this challenging role.
The impact of “Unbelievable” falls on the viewer’s empathy and ultimately Dever’s performance, as we are both horrified and impassioned by her situation. Marie is assaulted twice, by both her attacker and the Washington detectives who wanted an easy solution to her case. But “Unbelievable” isn’t a black-and-white depiction of police injustice — the show also highlights the importance of cops who care about their job and the people they serve.
The combination of distinctive, clever writing and nuanced character portrayals cements “Unbelievable” as more than just a cop procedural. We care about these people — their families, their wellbeing, the injustice they’ve experienced as women in a patriarchal world. Not only do we want the serial rapist caught, but we want to see all of these women persevere and thrive, despite the societal and literal barriers they undergo during the investigation.
With the #metoo and #timesup movements, sexual assault and harrassment are being taken more seriously in both the media and the job market. People are being punished and held accountable for their actions. At the same time “Unbelievable” is being streamed by millions of people around the world, high profile NFL player Antonio Brown faces allegations of sexual assault and was released by the New England Patriots.
But as the story of “Unbelievable” suggests, nothing is going to change if we don’t address the systemic biases of our society. As Detective Rasmussen quips, no one denies that a murder occurred. The evidence is plain to see. But many people don’t believe the survivor, because our society is too quick to jump to conclusions. Marie, a woman shoved from foster home to foster home, was assumed too mentally unstable to declare her own assault by the cops and even her own foster mothers. Would you have believed her? Or maybe the right question is, why wouldn’t you?