The best crime dramas, whether fiction or fact, find an emotional core within the clinical procedural details. Few achieve that balance better than Unbelievable, which is as gripping as a page-turner and also incredibly moving.
Adapted by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and director Lisa Cholodenko from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism from The Marshall Project and ProPublica, and an episode of the radio program This American Life, the smartly cast eight-part series unfolds over two compelling timelines.
The more wrenching section depicts the downward spiral of teenage foster-care veteran Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), who 's eking out a living on her own in a Seattle suburb. After a 2008 sexual assault in her apartment, she is ostracized as a “rape liar” when skeptical authorities doubt her claims, causing her to retract her initial story, which puts her in legal jeopardy and effectively victimizes her a second time.
The scenes in which she is grilled mercilessly by detectives (Eric Lange of Escape at Dannemora and Coach's Bill Fagerbakke), who seem more intent on poking holes in her story than seeking a criminal, are nearly as devastating as those involving the Central Park Five in another first-rate Netflix miniseries about injustice, the Emmy-nominated When They See Us.
Rising star Dever (Justified, Last Man Standing, Booksmart) is heartbreaking as the forlorn Marie, who loses hope that anyone has her back—including Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett as former foster parents. (The flawless supporting cast includes The Middle's Charlie McDermott as one of Marie's counselors and Grey's Anatomy's Brooke Smith as a sympathetic therapist.)
Unbeknownst to Marie, two female Colorado detectives pick up the trail of a serial rapist three years later. In scenes intercut with Marie's ordeal, their painstaking and often frustrating police work is riveting, largely because the excellent Merritt Wever (as quietly empathetic Karen Duvall) and Toni Collette (as gruff, jaded Grace "Don't call me mentor" Rasmussen) make such an entertaining, dedicated odd couple.
"I don't know how anyone does [this job] without God," declares Karen, a churchgoer with kids, to the more agnostic and acerbic Grace. Both are haunted by earlier cases as they pursue this elusive villain, who's extremely good about covering his tracks. And when Grace tweaks Karen about harboring un-Christian thoughts about their prey, Karen cracks: "Read your Old Testament, woman. We're big into vengeance."
These woman are heroes — and so in her way is Marie, trapped in a lie of other people’s making as she awaits justice.
Unbelievable, Series Premiere, Friday, Sept. 13, Netflix