Unbelievable Is TV’s Most Humane Show

The Netflix series is a remarkable study of how sexual-assault investigations should be conducted, and how they shouldn’t.

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in Netflix's 'Unbelievable'
Beth Dubber / Netflix

This article contains spoilers through all eight episodes of Unbelievable.

In the first episode of Unbelievable, Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) is in her apartment, huddled in a comforter, clearly in shock, obviously traumatized. Her former foster mother, Judith (Elizabeth Marvel), hands her a cup of water and tries to get her to drink it. She hears footsteps in the hallway outside. “Here they come,” Judith says. “Here comes help.”

Unbelievable, which debuted on Netflix last week and is based on a true story reported in 2015 by ProPublica and the Marshall Project, folds two narratives into its eight episodes. One, which manages to feel bleakly familiar and dumbfoundingly enraging at the same time, is about what happens when the people investigating a rape do almost everything wrong. Not the procedural elements, although they mess those up too. The human elements: the part where a detective questions an 18-year-old woman who’s just survived the worst experience of her life, a woman he’s supposed to help, and fails her. He revictimizes her, making her go over the story of her attack again and again. A nurse pokes and prods at her without asking whether she needs a break. The foster mother raises suspicions that she’s lying. No one pays attention to the woman’s emotional state, or how it might be limiting her ability to efficiently convey what happened to her.

But then there’s the other story. The one you rarely see or hear about, the one that’s all the more poignant for how strange it seems. A woman is raped, and this time a detective investigating the case does everything right. She takes the woman to a private space, after making sure she’s comfortable. She tells her over and over again that whatever the woman feels like doing or saying in that moment is absolutely okay. The detective is gentle. She’s professional. She reassures the woman that the nurses about to examine her are well trained and sensitive. She helps officers preserve valuable evidence. Quietly, ruthlessly, Unbelievable probes the discrepancies between the ways the two rape victims are treated. Imagine, the series says, if every person who’s been assaulted were treated this way. Here comes help.

Since it debuted on Friday, Unbelievable has become one of Netflix’s coveted word-of-mouth hits, with people—largely women—taking to social media to rave about the show’s humane storytelling and its incisive dissection of why the immediate response to someone saying she’s been assaulted is to doubt her. “Still wondering why people don’t report their assaults?” the actor Aurora Perrineau wrote on Twitter. “Watch ‘unbelievable’ on Netflix.” The director Olivia Wilde shared that she binged all seven hours of the show on a plane, and highly recommended the experience. One woman wrote that she’d bailed on a date and left laundry unattended for six hours because she couldn’t stop watching. It’s a strange reaction to a show about such a brutal subject—to be so absorbed in it that you can’t do anything else. And yet Unbelievable, despite the unflinching ways in which it documents Marie being failed by the institutions tasked with protecting her, offers its own kind of comfort.

Unbelievable fits into the existing phenomenon you could call the Law & Order: SVU paradox, in which women viewers are drawn to series that portray “especially heinous” crimes of a sexual nature. On the one hand, there’s a strange kind of thrill in seeing your worst fears imagined on-screen—the same kind of charge that draws children to gruesome fairy tales, or adults to horror movies. But series such as SVU and Unbelievable do something else too: They impose justice on a world that is anything but fair. They show sensitive, experienced detectives taking care of victims, chasing down leads, doggedly pursuing suspects, and sometimes putting abusers in prison. They acknowledge that people will probably always do awful things to one another—such is the nature of life. But they show what a difference can be made by competence and good faith.

On Unbelievable, which was co-created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon, Marie’s case unfolds separately from an investigation being conducted by Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). It isn’t until the final episodes that the show clarifies why: Marie’s attack happened three years before the rapes Duvall and Rasmussen are investigating in 2011, in a different state. But Grant, who wrote four of the eight episodes and directed two, tells the stories in tandem, often to devastating effect. The scene in which Detective Duvall interviews Amber (Danielle Macdonald) immediately after her assault is all the more notable because viewers have already seen Detective Parker (Eric Lange) interview Marie with infinitely less gentleness and care. In a later episode, as Duvall and Rasmussen finally uncover evidence that Marie was raped, their reactions are spliced together with a scene of Marie talking to her therapist (Brooke Smith) about how what happened to her has destroyed her faith that people actually care about the truth.

It’s impossible to watch Unbelievable and not think about recent cases in which women speaking out about their own sexual assaults have been failed by systems that were supposed to offer them the bare minimum of due diligence. The nonfiction book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, published this week, reports that the FBI never investigated an additional charge of alleged sexual misconduct against the then–Supreme Court nominee, even though the person who remembered it happening reportedly approached the bureau himself. The woman formerly known as Emily Doe, Chanel Miller, also has a new book addressing the lenient sentence given to the Stanford student who was found guilty of attacking her while she was unconscious, and the extraordinary burdens the justice system places on survivors of assault.

And yet here, too, is where the catharsis of Unbelievable comes from. The past few years have seen a distinct pattern emerge in the news: allegations of misbehavior, abuse, or assault against powerful men, followed by a response ranging from tepid non-apology to outraged rebuttal. To watch Unbelievable is not only to see a miscarriage of justice be corrected, but also to see the people who’ve made mistakes come to terms with their complicity in a broken system. The show reveals, in lingering detail, the look on Detective Parker’s face as he realizes the appalling ways he mistreated a vulnerable teenager. It depicts his apology to Marie, which is genuine. And it allows Marie to be angry, not conciliatory, in response.

“You know, no one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying,” Marie’s lawyer tells her in one scene. “Or someone who said he was carjacked. Doesn’t happen.” But with sexual assault, skepticism that accusers are telling the truth is hardwired into the system. (False reports are estimated to range from 2 to 10 percent of all accusations, putting them in similar proportion to other crimes.) It doesn’t have to be this way, Unbelievable shows. It’s possible to treat people reporting horrific crimes with sensitivity and fairness without undermining the rights of the people they’re accusing. It’s possible to investigate rape cases in ways that make it more likely for victims to get justice, not less. “Next time,” Marie tells Detective Parker, “do better.” The great hope the series offers is that he actually might.