TV Review: Powerful Performances Fuel ‘Unbelievable’

Early on in Netflix’s new limited series “Unbelievable,” Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) recounts a sexual assault she endured. Why did this seemingly random act of heinous sexual violence happen to her? As “Unbelievable” continues through the eight-part series, one question arises: Did it actually happen to her?

Soon after giving a detailed description of the rape, Marie claims she made it up. Her story seems inconsistent to the Washington detectives investigating her case and it appears they are ready to abandon it at the slightest discrepancy. Coupled with the fact Marie has been with multiple foster families and has lived an inconsistent life, the police now find it hard to believe anything she says. It’s the harsh reality that gives “Unbelievable” its potency. Sometimes the world finds it easier to make a liar out of someone than believe them.

Meanwhile, two Colorado detectives begin hunting a serial rapist. Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) teams up with Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) in trying to find the criminal. Rasmussen and Duvall couldn’t be more different. Rasmussen is stoic and tough, while Duvall is calmer and more empathetic. Their odd couple pairing brings moments of levity to an important and serious show. Any other pairing of actors would have played the parts as types on the page but Collette and Wever are so good and elevate every frame they operate in. Wever, in particular, gets a chance to show a new side and depth to her abilities as a performer. Dever continues her great 2019, after “Booksmart,” and is able to navigate a nuanced character with ease throughout “Unbelievable.” These actors know they are doing important work and serve the series well.

“Unbelievable” is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article, which gives the series a real world feeling. The creators, including Oscar-nominated “Erin Brockovich” scribe Susannah Grant, are not interested in providing cheap thrills. Even as things become more evident regarding Rasmussen and Duvall’s case, the twists don’t feel like “gotcha” moments. “Unbelievable” is about the seriousness of the crimes and the ramifications and stigma of reporting—or not reporting—them. “Unbelievable” is about the element of believability.

The show is constructed as a familiar procedural and doesn’t break any new ground in that sense. At times, the transitioning between Marie’s storyline and Rasmussen and Duvall’s storyline feels a bit abrupt from a technical standpoint. Even so, telling a story between Washington and Colorado gives a snapshot of the wide-spread epidemic of sexual assault. It’s never an isolated case and “Unbelievable” shows it can happen anywhere. How the material is handled is what helps “Unbelievable” rise above. Its construction isn’t as important as its message. The directors, including Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner and Grant, move each episode with a propulsive eye, making a 45-minute episode seem much shorter.

“Unbelievable” has an important message but never feels as if it is preaching. It’s educating and bringing awareness to a culture that allows victims to become scrutinized, if their story doesn’t fit a perfect narrative. “Unbelievable” will be a hard watch for some, perhaps cathartic for others. It provides no easy solution to the issues presented but wisps of hope to those who may feel alone.

“Unbelievable” will be available on Netflix on September 13th.

GRADE: (★★)

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