At this time of the year, when year-end, best-of lists are being compiled, the sheer volume and variety of TV content becomes glaringly obvious. It’s impossible to see and review everything.
Unbelievable (streaming on Netflix) is on some best-of lists that have appeared recently. I didn’t see it when it first arrived on Netflix because I was away on leave. Although already curious about it, what really drove me to watch it was a new story I read the other day in an online Irish newspaper. It carried the headline: “Only 11% Of Sex Crimes Reported in 2018 Were Solved By Garda.” In Ireland, Garda means the police.
As disturbing and grimly inevitable as that headline might be, Unbelievable drills deeply into the reality behind it. And for much of its eight episodes, it is truly grim and enraging. Yet addictive, and one can see why it became a word-of-mouth sensation when it dropped on Netflix in September. It’s a drama based on a true story and it is hard to define with ease. That’s because it’s a crime thriller and a study of how sexual-assault investigations should be conducted, and how they go hopelessly awry.
It is at times terrifying in its depiction of rape and the aftermath, while simultaneously being resolutely tender in its treatment of the female victims. In this series, the police-procedural template is used, then smashed to smithereens.
It opens with Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman in shock, trembling and visibly upset, waiting for the police to come after she reported being raped. Everyone, from the two male detectives to a female nurse, treat Marie’s situation as a by-the-book case. By-the-book means “be suspicious.” The cops badger her with repeated questions to the point where she wants out of the investigation. Her background, an abused child in numerous foster homes, becomes the focus of everything. Maybe she’s disturbed, maybe she’s an attention-seeking scatterbrain.
The second episode introduces another victim, in what appears to be an entirely unrelated case. Amber (Danielle Macdonald) is being interviewed by Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever, from Nurse Jackie and The Walking Dead), and Duvall is at pains to be sensitive while also wanting to find the rapist.
It’s fascinating how Unbelievable manages to knit together one of its essential themes – bristling, busy male cops treat sexual assault in a vastly different manner than female police officers – with its essence as a captivating, twisting crime drama about finding the criminal.
Co-created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the latter having worked on the Pulitzer Prize-winning story that tackled the original true story, the series is remarkably gripping while being drained of melodrama.
Eventually, viewers meet Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), another cop working on another rape case. The viewer is drawn into this web of half-truths, suspended investigations and half-baked theories just as the two female officers are.
There is a point where, like True Detective, this series becomes about putting together the fragments of addled memories and the stories of the traumatized. In this instance, however, the focus is female-centric and a direct connection is made between the power structures created by men and the intuitive tenderness of the female officers, even the ambitious and brusque Rasmussen.
Throughout, the initial story of what happened to Marie, in the assault and the resulting assault on her fragile esteem, keeps returning to the plot.
Given its emphasis on how rape victims are treated by the police, Unbelievable could have gone terribly wrong. It could have made the reality of the assaults lurid and sensational. It could also have become an angry polemic, a diatribe against sexist, insensitive male figures in the law-enforcement system. Astonishingly, it does neither.
It’s bleak, but humane; enthralling, but not grossly manipulative. It is an extraordinary experience to watch and know that it’s based on a true story. As such, it’s unforgettable and easily one of the best crime dramas of the year.
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