*Warning: the show being described in this blog post centers around violence and sexual assault. Reading about these incidents may be difficult.*
I finished the new Netflix show Unbelievable in two sittings. The eight-part series is based on Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by Pro Publica and The Marshall Project, describing the process of finding, arresting and convicting a serial rapist.
Both the original reporting and the show centers around three people: one of the earliest victims, Marie Adler, and the two detectives who ultimately take this guy down, Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen.
In the Netflix series, Marie is played by Kaitlyn Dever. I loved Dever in the movie Booksmart, where she played Amy, the quiet best friend to Beanie Feldstein’s Molly. This is a much different role, one where Dever has to embody a person who has been through multiple traumas: abandonment by her biological parents, an incredibly rough time in the foster care system, oppressive rules in her housing program, and then this attack.
As Marie, Dever is in survival mode. There’s one very poignant scene where she’s talking with a court-ordered therapist (played by Brooke Smith, formerly Dr. Erica Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy) and she’s describing the plot of a zombie apocalypse movie. The more she details, the clearer the metaphor becomes.
While Marie is trying to put her life back together in Washington state, two detectives in Colorado realize they may be chasing the same attacker. Detective Karen Duvall is played by Merritt Wever. You may recognize Wever from her roles in Nurse Jackie and Godless. As detective Duvall, Wever is a wife, mother and devout Christian. She relies on her faith to help her survive the brutal things she sees on the job every single day. In this role, she is warm, caring and patient, all vital characteristics for building trust.
She partners with another detective, in another town, Grace Rasmussen. Grace is played by Toni Collette, who will forever be Rose in the movie In Her Shoes. As detective Rasmussen, Collette is fierce, laser focused and pounds out her stress on the hiking trail with her dogs or fixing cars with her husband (who also happens to work for the attorney general).
The first two episodes are very difficult to watch, as Marie relives her attack through flashbacks. The flashes are quick, but intense, and will leave your stomach in knots. In those early episodes we also meet another victim, Amber Stevenson, who is played by Danielle Macdonald from Dumplin’. She experiences trauma in a much different way than Marie, and regularly confides in detective Duvall as she tries to move forward with her life.
Episodes three through eight feel less like a documentary, and more like you’re watching a mystery show. We follow detectives Duvall and Rasmussen as they use every resource at their disposal to find this attacker. There are dead ends, glimmers of hope and above all, a fire to serve justice.
The way the show is written and directed, each episode ends on a cliffhanger. They clearly set up the final scene of each installment to make the viewer hit “next episode” immediately. That’s how I flew through the entire thing in less than 18 hours (and I was sleeping for seven of those hours).
Not only does the show reel you in with the pace and suspense, but the cast is stellar. In addition to everyone named above, one of the original detectives is played by Bill Fagerbakke (Dauber Dybinski on Coach), Marie’s lawyer is played by Tom Amandes (Dr. Pelican on Parenthood) and one of the suspects is played by Aaron Staton (Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men).
It is my prediction that Kaitlyn Dever and Merritt Wever will both be nominated for every eligible category in the 2020 awards season. They both gave standout, emotionally charged performances.
Once you’ve watched the entire series, read this Twitter thread from one of the original journalists who covered this story, Ken Armstrong. He shares his reactions to the show, as well as Marie’s (she gave her permission).
I also recommend listening to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast episode about the show, in which the critics all commented that one of the strongest elements of the series was that detectives Duvall and Rasmussen were united in their commitment to solving this case, but the show was never about these two women becoming best friends. The critics suggest that would have cheapened the storytelling (to add that just for TV) and I totally agree.
Tell me, did you watch?