Netflix’s “Unbelievable” Tells Its Procedural with Nuance, Care and Patience
With cop shows proliferating our screens these days, writers have had to stretch their imaginations to come up with novel approaches to the whodunnit. Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row told a Ripper-esque mystery in a make-believe world populated with fantastical beasts and fairies. The murders at the core of HBO’s True Detective series are usually ones taking decades to solve. Few shows are as unique as Fox’s new Prodigal Son where a profiler consults with his serial killer dad on various cases. With Unbelievable, the extraordinary Netflix miniseries that dropped on September 13, the creators did something utterly exceptional to ensure it stood out from the crowd. It told its story with such painstaking detail and thoroughness that it became one of the most comprehensive and involving examinations of crime ever presented on either the big or small screen.
Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon approached their miniseries, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” written by Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, with a mindfulness to the minutiae in the story. They dramatized the lengthy interviews of witnesses, the internal meetings at the police station, the exploration of the crime scene data, all with a fine-toothed comb. That much time on the work of detectives is often glossed over for dramatic purposes. After all, what’s more exciting – chasing down a perp or cross-checking lists of names of potential perps? Yet this series managed to make all of examining such details utterly enthralling. It was as if we were a detective in the case ourselves, seeing with our own eyes all the little things that would eventually lead to the big arrest. In Unbelievable, this was the drama.
The TV series begins with the police interview of rape victim Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) in Lynwood, WA. She’s a young woman, moody and mercurial due to a long history of foster homes behind her, and at first, she seems to be reticent to even talk to the patrolman taking notes in her apartment. Not long after, she must give the same testimony again to Detective Parker (Eric Lange) when he takes over the case. The entirety of his questioning of her plays out onscreen, presenting a much more thorough sense of their interaction. It’s painful to hear, and we hear it twice. The pauses and long silences in Marie’s answers make her tentative answers heartbreaking. Seeing her share such pain, played out over and over again, is difficult to bear but it makes for incredible drama.
On shows like Criminal Minds and NCIS, such scenes generally hit the key points to move the plot along and then the story is onto the next scene, but not here. We’re stuck in that room with Marie, sharing in her pain at having to tell her story repeatedly, and then to make matters worse, have it questioned for its inconsistencies. Here, her character and testimony is the story, and her uncertainty will set off a chain of events where the police doubt her and eventually bully her into recanting.
One of the smart things the series did in that first hour is not presenting Parker as too much of a villain. Instead, he’s a well-meaning cop, but as a man, he’s unaware of the mix of emotions and confusing memories that a woman feels in such a situation. He only thinks, he doesn’t feel what’s going on. This failure of empathy is driven home all the more in episode two where the story introduces us to a similar rape that occurred in Golden, Colorado, and a much more sensitive detective is in charge of the investigation. She is Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and compared to Parker, it’s night and day.
Not only does Duvall use kid gloves in coaxing details from rape victim Amber Stevenson (Danielle Macdonald), but the scene plays out in long-form showing the many minutes it takes the girl to think clearly. Duvall understands this and never pushes too hard. Still, her deliberate and sensitive methods extract superb details, including Amber’s remembrance of a birthmark on her rapist’s left calf. The scene goes on and on, but it’s riveting as more is revealed, and it takes time to build to such drama.
The entire series spent that kind of time on all aspects of the investigation and the characters involved. Character is action, after all. That’s especially key with the introduction of a second female detective who’s quite different from Duvall. Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) is investigating another rape with similar characteristics as the previous two. Her methodology is as exacting as Duvall’s, but she’s been around longer and doesn’t suffer the bureaucrats stymying her work at all. Together, the two detectives will eventually join forces and complement each other’s style. But even then, the series zigs where most other procedurals would zag. They don’t join forces with Marie, though her case figures into their investigation. It’s just another way that the adaptation stays truer to the real story and it makes for more disruptive storytelling.
Even when the series focuses on how the investigation affects the personal lives of Duvall and Rasmussen, it plays differently. Solving the rape case never becomes about their redemption, and neither is ever put in harm’s way as in so many cop shows. Marie’s life plays out differently too. The aftermath for her becomes a series of further humiliations, and the narrative never loses sight that she’s barely out of her teens and not some wonder woman standing up to all indignities. Marie was a mess before and after the horrific rape, but the story charts her steps towards a better life as methodically as it does in solving the mystery.
The acting is top-notch across the board, with the three leads doing exemplary work. Elizabeth Marvel and Bridget Everett do stand-out work too as two of Marie’s past foster parents. The direction and editing, like the screenwriting, takes its time too, letting scenes play out much longer than any other crime series would as the camera studies the faces of those involved.
Unbelievable is a mesmerizing story, told with nuance and complexity throughout its eight hours, and each second feels crucial to the end result. It even paces the reveal of the rapist until close to the very end, ensuring that all I’s have been dotted and T’s crossed before then in both the investigation and the incredible telling of this extraordinary tale.
View the trailer of Unbelievable below:
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