What’s up: “Unbelievable” is inspired by the true story told in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by ProPublica and The Marshall Project as well as a “This American Life” podcast episode. In 2008 (in both the show and real-life), an 18-year-old woman (played by Kaitlyn Dever) in Lynnwood, Washington, told the police an intruder broke into her home and raped her at knifepoint. Then, for various reasons, she claimed the story wasn’t true ― a decision that alienated her from her friends and community. A couple years later, a young woman in Golden, Colorado, had a similar experience, causing detectives to slowly piece together the possibility that a serial rapist may be active in the Western United States.
The show opens with a street flanked by two signposts that each have a “Do Not Enter” sign above a “Wrong Way” sign. The camera pans across different parts of Lynnwood until the focus comes to 18-year-old Marie Adler, sitting dazed and shaken in her apartment. She relays the attacker’s message to her during the previous night’s assault, saying, “If I screamed, he’d kill me.”
Much of the first episode clinically details the cold and blunt investigation into Adler’s claims, as various detectives and medical professionals ask her to repeatedly recount her story, and figuratively and literally prod her for details. At one point, a medical staffer asks Adler if she has thought about killing herself, waits about a second for an answer and then leaves the room, satisfied with her due diligence. As doubts grow, the people designed to protect Adler (including her former foster parents) demand that she present more evidence.
In a subsequent time jump, the show pivots to the investigations of the far-more-heroic detectives (played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) who work this case years later.
The cast includes Collette, Dever, Danielle Macdonald and Wever. “Unbelievable” runs for eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes.
Sum up: The premiere episode has a small moment about three-quarters into the episode that the whole series rests upon.
Two Lynnwood detectives have decided to interrogate Adler in a grey room and accuse the teenager of lying about the rape, while simultaneously telling her, “We don’t think you’re a bad person.” They then step out of the room and betray their biases. One detective recalls a hazy memory of a student who lied about an assault by her professor and then, despite his shaky recollection, asserts the accuser deserved a lawsuit. Under his breath, a detective makes a joke about how Adler’s deadbeat dad (who fed her dog food as a child) should have used a condom. Then they find some change and return to the grey room with a water bottle and a cheap snack from the vending machine ― gifts for Adler to make themselves feel like they’re doing the right thing here.
This show excels at focusing on all the little biases that go into personal and systemic failings in society’s response to sexual assault victims. In the most brutal moments, the show also portrays the aftermath of that ― the extreme isolation Adler experiences as the world throws her out.
Heads up: The show portrays its serious subject matter without humor and with little flourish ― a choice that works for the most part and fits the material, but also means every subpar moment stands out without surrounding gloss to smooth it out. Take the awkward scripting the show uses to portray Adler’s thoughts of suicide. In a repeated daydream, Adler envisions herself running into a large body of water without stopping, a moment often emulated in stories since the 1899 novel, “The Awakening.” To illustrate a suicidal moment later on, the Adler character climbs over the guardrail of a road bridge and melodramatically stands there listening to the violent water below. The original ProPublica and Marshall Project article, “An Unbelievable Story Of Rape,” about this moment describes it as such:
On her way, she crossed a bridge. She considered jumping. “Probably the only time I just wanted to die in my life,” she says. She called a friend and said, “Please come get me before I do something stupid.” Afterward, Marie hurled her phone over the side.
The show ends its first episode on a near-literal cliffhanger, with Adler hanging from the guardrail. This ill-fitting use of television-trope melodrama here does not help the show’s mission of presenting a nuanced, accurate look into what happens to survivors.
Close-up: The introduction of the character Detective Karen Duvall (loosely based on Detective Stacy Galbraith) has many details to establish her as a hero to root for. Duvall drives through scenic Colorado talking to her partner about treating a sick child that’s presumably hers and many miles away. With the softest of voices and most understanding of tones, she helps a rape survivor through recounting the attack for a police report. While driving later, she hurriedly eats a Clif bar because she doesn’t have time for a break on this job and simultaneously expresses emotional pain on her face when her husband makes a joke over the phone about her mother loving him more. This is not just a character who knows what they’re doing ― she also sacrifices her own life for the job while still having the human emotions to process the hurt of that trade-off.
No one came to court with her that day, except her public defender.
She was 18 years old, charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
Rarely do misdemeanors draw notice. Her case was one of 4,859 filed in 2008 in Lynnwood Municipal Court, a place where the judge says the goal is “to correct behavior — to make Lynnwood a better, safer, healthier place to live, work, shop and visit.”
But her misdemeanor had made the news, and made her an object of curiosity or, worse, scorn. It had cost her the newfound independence she was savoring after a life in foster homes. It had cost her sense of worth. Each ring of the phone seemed to announce another friendship, lost. A friend from 10th grade called to ask: How could you lie about something like that? Marie — that’s her middle name, Marie — didn’t say anything. She just listened, then hung up. Even her foster parents now doubted her. She doubted herself, wondering if there was something in her that needed to be fixed.
Comp: “Unbelievable” has similarities to the 2018 Netflix miniseries “Collateral,” in that both follow a female detective of near superhuman skill and emotional strength as the detective tries to solve a crime while fighting against systemic obstacles.
The Characters and Money: The show spends a great deal of time on the monetary struggles of Adler. She works at a department store with a less-than-understanding boss, who seems to not care that Adler has gone through a traumatic experience. The original cop who closes Adler’s case also closes the possibility of Adler receiving medical benefits and wage-loss compensation from the government for the attack. Part of why Adler ends up telling the cops she made up her story comes from her need to stop talking to them constantly and get back to her precarious job. The weight of financial obligations leads the still-teenage Adler to make decisions that someone with more money wouldn’t.
Bonus: This marks the second critically lauded role for Kaitlyn Dever this year, as she also starred in the female friendship-centric comedy “Booksmart.” Here’s that trailer.
Read on for more recommendations and news from the week. And if you want to stay up to date with what to watch on a weekly basis, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.
What Else Is New This Week On Netflix
A Couple Of Netflix News Stories From This Week
1. Perhaps this stretches the definition of “news,” but Vulture published an “ode” to the “Tuca & Bertie” character Speckle this week. As someone who is still sad and frustrated that Netflix cancelled that animated show, I greatly appreciated this piece.
2. Apple released details about its forthcoming Netflix competitor Apple TV+. The service will launch Nov. 1, cost $4.99 a month. Customers who buy an Apple product will get a year of the streaming service for free. Netflix’s near domination of the streaming marketplace may end before the year does.
And here are the shows and movies that joined Netflix throughout the week:
- “Norm of the North: King Sized Adventure”
- “Bill Burr: Paper Tiger” (Netflix Original)
- “Eat Pray Love”
- “Evelyn” (Netflix Original)
- “Shameless” (Season 9)
- “Terrace House: Tokyo 2019-2020: (Netflix Original)
- “The I-Land” (Netflix Original)
- “The Mind, Explained” (Netflix Original)
- “The Chef Show” (Volume 2, Netflix Original)
- “Head Count”
- “Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea” (Netflix Original)
- “I’m Sorry” (Season 2)
- “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress: The Battle of Unato” (Netflix Original)
- “The Ranch” (Part 7, Netflix Original)
- “Tall Girl” (Netflix Film)
- “Unbelievable” (Netflix Original)
- “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the year “The Awakening” was published as 1989. It is 1899. The story also stated the sexual assault of Adler happened in 2009, when it happened in 2008.