One can’t help but note the new Netflix true-crime drama series “Unbelievable” shares a number of basic framework specifics with “Mindhunter,” which after two seasons under the Netflix umbrella is well on its way to becoming one of the great TV series of this century.
Both shows are fictional spins on true-life events. Both shows frequently switch locales from one state to another. Both shows feature a pair of seemingly mismatched investigators — one older and more experienced than the other — who explore new and unconventional methods in order to track down a serial predator.
But from the very first scenes of the eight-episode Season One arc (I’ve seen the entire run), “Unbelievable” establishes its own identity as a gripping, tense, sometimes heartbreaking, expertly rendered true-crime mystery and character study featuring outstanding performances from a rising young star and two established veteran actors at the top of their respective games.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting series by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, as well as an episode of “This American Life,” this is a scathing indictment of a legal system that far too often subjects rape victims to such scrutiny and doubt they feel as if they’ve been assaulted a second time.
The opening episode is set in Lynnwood, Washington, in 2008. In a quietly powerful and stunningly authentic performance, Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”) is Marie, an 18-year-old woman who has spent nearly her entire life in foster homes and has endured unspeakable abuse and is now living in a community for at-risk youth.
Late one night, an intruder enters Marie’s apartment and rapes her repeatedly. (This attack is depicted in brief and murky but still nauseatingly effective flashbacks.)
The first cop on the scene interrogates Marie about the details of the attack. She is interviewed a second time by two local police detectives — and then a third time when she’s at the hospital, undergoing an examination.
After Marie’s well-intentioned but tone-deaf foster mother (Elizabeth Marvel) contacts authorities to express misgivings about the authenticity of Marie’s allegations, and police find minor discrepancies in the various accounts Marie has given, the focus of the investigation turns to Marie, who is eventually charged with filing a false police report.
Flash forward a few years later to the state of Colorado, where Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) is interviewing a rape victim named Amber (Danielle Macdonald), whose story contains a myriad of details mirroring Marie’s nightmare. (Not that Karen would have any way of knowing about that attack that occurred a few years earlier in another state.)
The family-oriented, deeply religious, soft-spoken (but also tough) Karen eventually teams up with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), a cynical, foul-mouthed, rogue veteran who works in an adjacent district and couldn’t be more different from Karen. (Thanks to the strong writing and the finely calibrated performances by Wever and Collette, there’s nothing stale about the execution of the timeworn buddy-cop formula.)
Virtually every scene in “Unbelievable” is rich with detail, whether we’re seeing the buzz of choreographed but sometimes imperfect activity when police swoop in on a crime scene and collect evidence, or when Karen comes home to her family and remains on the phone, discussing the particulars of a case, or when we see the pain and confusion on Marie’s face as she finds herself apologizing to just about everyone in her life when SHE’S the one who should be receiving the apologies.
Over the course of the eight episodes, we alternate between the two storylines, with Marie struggling to stay afloat in Washington state in the weeks and months after the attack, as Karen and Grace devote nearly every waking hour to piecing together a case pinning a shocking number of rapes to one maddeningly elusive, methodically monstrous, serial rapist.
There’s never any doubt the two stories will eventually converge — but when that does happen, the emotional impact we feel is overwhelming.
This is a smart and knowing investigative procedural, a stylish but never exploitative true-crime story, an insightful character study — and one of the best series of the year.