Unbelievable is a quietly devastating drama based on the true story of an 18 year old woman who in 2008 reported to police that she had been raped at knife-point by an intruder, only to be disbelieved and eventually even charged with wasting police time.
Unlike too many other crime dramas, there is no glamorisation of brutal sex crimes and serial predators here. Unbelievable focuses instead on the trauma suffered by the young woman, Marie Adler (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) and other victims of what turns out to be a serial rapist.
The first episode is an object lesson in the failures of the police handling Marie’s case. The two male detectives treat her witness interview as an interrogation, picking at “holes” in her story as if it’s suspicious that she can’t find the words to calmly recount the ordeal she has just endured.
Dever brilliantly conveys Marie’s struggle, painting a picture of why, after hours of hostile interviews, she agrees to withdraw her original statement and say she made it up.
This episode reminded me of the powerful BBC drama, Three Girls, based on the Rochdale child sexual exploitation cases. Marie, who has grown up neglected and abused and spent most of her life in foster care, is treated with similar contempt by the authorities.
Once she becomes known as the girl who made it up, her life begins to unravel; the fragile support network of former foster parents, counsellors and new friends crumbles. And, crucially, she is unable to seek the help she needs because she officially declared that nothing happened.
The second episode tells a very different story. Three years later and over a thousand miles away in Colorado another young woman reports a rape. She too was tied up and raped for hours by an intruder in her own home. This time the detective dealing with the case is compassionate Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever).
She gives the victim time and privacy to recollect details. She listens quietly, doesn’t push her and thanks her for any information she is able to provide. She accompanies her to the hospital, where a well-trained nurse who Duvall knows well takes care of the woman. And she is determined to find the man who did it — not by “getting into his mindset” a la Mindhunter, but by doggedly pursuing every scrap of evidence and pushing her team to rise to the demands of the case.
This leads her to fellow Colorado detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), who is handling a similar case, and together they pursue their perpetrator.
The next six episodes are lighter; they become a buddy-cop story, with the twist that these are competent, committed women who have to battle against the good old boys in the department to get the job done.
In the course of their investigation we find out some disturbing facts, such as that police officers in the US are up to four times more likely to be violent towards a family member than the general population — and that, of those officers actually found guilty of domestic violence (a minority, as cases are typically “handled” informally), a third are still in their jobs a year later.
Though this is a real case, the two women detectives feel fictional — an anomaly in what is a damning situation. The series has been screened on Capitol Hill as part of a campaign over the tens of thousands of rape kits currently sitting in labs across the US untested, because police departments haven’t followed up on evidence.
This is a compelling series with outstanding performances all round. I have to admit to binging the whole thing in a day and a half, using up my data on trains and buses — and I’ve seen others doing the same.
Unbelievable’s focus on good cops versus bad is necessarily limited, but there are enough hints at the societal issues that underlie both sexual violence and its mishandling to open wider conversations. It is part of a welcome shift in crime drama, helping us all to understand better the shattering effects of trauma and what needs to happen to rebuild lives.
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