Released by Netflix on Sept. 13, “Unbelievable” is, among other things, a story of betrayal. Betrayed by the justice system that was supposed to protect her, the foster parents that were supposed to take care of her and the friends that should’ve supported her, the central character Marie—portrayed by Kaitlyn Dever— is a rape survivor denied the proper help she deserves. Society denied her empathy when she needed it the most.
When Marie reports being raped, the detectives assigned to her case handle the investigation in such a frustrating manner that she recants her story due to excessive gaslighting and doubt. One dreadful thing leads to another and Marie begins to be hounded by hate from social media and everyone around her. She even gets charged with lying about her own rape.
Coincidentally, two female detectives elsewhere are investigating numerous cases of sexual assault. These women follow the evidence which eventually leads them to the single perpetrator of all these crimes, including the one against Marie.
Perhaps the most stunning thing about the series is that the story is based on true events. “Unbelievable” was written after the 2015 news article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which was initially authored by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. The article won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
While the names of the characters in the series are not the same as their real-life counterparts, many aspects, including the general timeline otherwise stay true to what actually happened. “Unbelievable” is a very faithful adaptation that respects both the facts of the real case and the survivors by focusing on their stories and experiences rather than on those of the rapist.
Unlike many other films or shows that insensitively portray sexual assault, “Unbelievable” avoids being exploitative or overly sensational. The series is directed and written with care and doesn’t exaggerate scenes for the sake of cheap melodrama. The detective work on display and character development keeps the viewer invested in Marie’s journey.
Dever portrays Marie with an effortless vulnerability and often expresses her emotions without uttering a word. The audience is witness to the despondence and isolation that shatters Marie’s spirit, and with her acting, Dever asks the viewer to sympathize with the character’s pain and trauma.
Marie’s background and trauma come together in complicated ways. The emotional turmoil that eats Marie up inside threatens to spill out, and the audience watches as the survivor does her best to stay strong. Thanks to the writing and acting of “Unbelievable,” viewers comprehend the traumatic mess that Maria must face.
The series educates viewers with sobering statistics about difficult, horrible truths that arise in investigations of rape like that of Marie. In less adept hands, “Unbelievable” could have been a directly educational series about the difficulties in legal rape cases. However, Toni Collette and Merritt Wever portray the stalwart detectives in Marie’s case to elevate her painful story to another level.
Marie experiences abuse all throughout her life, from being mistreated by foster parents at a young age to her eventual rape, inevitably results in a loss of faith in the system. “Unbelievable” skillfully teaches viewers that making a wonderful, compassionate community is ultimately a group effort, but so is making a hostile community that is prone to swift judgment and unthinking cruelty.
“Unbelievable” is a challenging series that may make one wonder if they have been complicit, at least indirectly. We must all learn to believe survivors instead of belittling them into silence.