Connecting the Dots (Series Review: “Unbelievable”)

A true crime series about a string of home invasion rapes, the fringe-class victim who no one believes, and the two detectives who just won’t give up until they’ve brought a monster to justice.

SnapShot Plot

Unless you share my appetite for police procedurals, the Netflix series Unbelievable may prove a tedious slog through endless would-be clues in the hunt for a serial rapist who terrorized single women in Colorado and Washington a decade ago. But if you enjoy an ‘under-the-hood’ peek at the grinding work and the overwhelming odds against finding a malevolent needle in the haystack, led by a partnership of determined and devoted female detectives, this 7-part series is absolutely riveting.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller (published first by ProPublica and then The Marshall Project), the story takes place in 2008 and again in 2011, earlier in Washington State and then mostly in Colorado. It begins with a call to police from a troubled teenager in Lynnwood, WA, Marie Adler whose story of a home invasion and subsequent rape strikes the detectives on the case as dubious, for two main reasons. First, the perpetrator has left little to no traces of himself behind, certainly nothing the police can call forensic evidence. Second, Marie herself does little to present her case in a compelling manner, and we soon understand why. Central in the entire series and played so convincingly by Kaitlyn Dever (of the now cancelled TV comedy Last Man Standing) that the viewer may too feel compelled to reach into the screen and shake her, this girl’s life has consisted of a roller-coaster of foster care homes and case workers since the age of three. She’s learned to distrust people and has a hard time accepting a sincere hand when it’s offered; she’s also learned that trouble seems to follow her everywhere and her best shot at survival is to keep her head down and not draw attention to herself. So when her most recent foster Mom (in a pitch-perfect and condescending portrayal by Elizabeth Marvel) takes it upon herself to share her doubts about the veracity of Marie’s story, the lead detective on the case is only too happy to concur. And as we realize much later on, his about-face from the investigation that should have ensued makes all the difference for the many lives soon to be caught up in a serial rapist’s burgeoning career of terror and aberrant violation. Jump ahead to 2011 in Golden, CO when Det. Karen Duvall is called to the scene of a brave young woman named Amber who was awakened in the night by a stranger who raped her over the course of four hours, as well as subjected her to a series of bizarre humiliations, then leaving as suddenly as he appeared, taking every bit of forensic evidence with him. Beautifully and elegantly played by Merritt Wever (Godless; Nurse Jackie) Duvall is determined to find the sicko who’s terrorized Amber, but when she discusses the case with her husband (a cop who works in the larger district of Westminster, CO) he off-handedly mentions it has a similar premise to a rape case his colleague, Det. Grace Rasmussen is working at his precinct. The ever-mesmerizing Toni Collette plays Rasmussen as a brilliant, take-no-prisoners badass who suffers no fools, least of all herself. She’s been at this game a very long time, and it shows. Duvall and Rasmussen may initially present as each other’s yin and yang, but that’s just on the surface. Where Duvall is outwardly tender and genial, on the inside she’s molten steel; Rasmussen comes across as a brick wall of stoic doggedness but all the while she’s guarding herself from crumbling under the enormous emotional weight of the work she does. What also seems to be the glue that bonds these two characters is the respect and care they each show to the victims of these rapes. Both Rasmussen and Duvall start from a default position of believing the victim. Clearly this is a central paradigm from which their approach springs. Together with an equally dedicated team and the help they eventually receive from a forensic investigative unit at the FBI, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

Parting Shot

Unbelievable was created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, with all three executive producing along with Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, and Katie Couric. In fact, Couric’s production company, as well as CBS, was instrumental in the production of the show. As mentioned before, the premise for Unbelievable was the Pulitzer Prize winning article (“An Unbelievable Story of Rape”) but it also drew from an episode from the Radio program, This American Life, entitled “Anatomy of Doubt” which focused on Marie Adler’s case but also extended to the Colorado cases themselves. In fact, Marie Adler herself is counted among the executive producers of this Netflix series.

At times, the overwhelmingly journalistic style – due in no small part to the single-camera production – may feel less like the scripted show it is and more like a network true crime magazine edition, the likes of a 48 Hours or a 20/20. But Unbelievable works, and its facts forward approach is, in retrospect, an undeniable reason why. At the end of the day, this story is not primarily about these people as much as it’s about this process. The process of investigating evidence and mining the facts to uncover the truth. It’s about doing the work. It’s about sharing information and wisdom. It’s about collaboration. The Devil’s in the Details. Never more true.

Unbelievable is presently streaming on Netflix.

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