Read: Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ is a different sort of drama about sexual assault
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.