The top-billed stars of “Unbelievable” don’t appear at all in the first episode.
Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are the big names in this limited series, playing police officers who team up to solve the case of a serial rapist. But the first hour — and the viewer’s most strongly held sympathies throughout the entire eight-episode run — belong to Kaitlyn Dever, a phenomenally talented young performer who brings to life the consequences of violence and of mistrust of women. Her life is marked twice, first by the crime she suffers and then by the protracted inability of society to believe her.
The series, an adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning ProPublica and Marshall Project story that feels almost too painful to have been true, begins in an aftermath: Dever’s Marie, comforted by her former foster mother (Elizabeth Marvel), is telling a story of having her home invaded by a rapist who undertook an hours-long assault on her. (It’s a siege on her body and spirit that we, mercifully, see only in short glimpses of memory.) From the earliest stages of the investigation, Marie finds herself put to the test by authorities whose methods and attitudes seem to lie somewhere between spuriousness and outright scorn. “Again?” she asks a nurse who demands she give testimony. “I already told the cop. Two cops.” Marie’s independent life had only just begun — after turbulent years moving between homes, she had moved out on her own and begun a job — and now becomes a spiraling eddy of repetitious communications with cops who care less about finding justice than about poking holes in her story.
Marie eventually faces charges against her for filing a false report — a charge that we doubly cannot believe to be true, because Dever’s crystalline performance provides certainty the law cannot, and because, in their plotline, Collette and Wever are working to find a man whose crimes fit a very specific pattern. Their investigation breaches, at times, the letter of the law, animated as it is by a larger goal: To bring one wrongdoer to justice before he can do yet more harm. The series, whose producers include “Erin Brockovich” writer Susannah Grant, Katie Couric and the real Marie (the name she went by in the journalistic account of her story), feels like a crusade, one whose power is drawn both from belief that Marie was wronged and by her tremulous but growing faith, movingly played by Dever, in herself.
Elsewhere, Collette and (especially) Wever bring plenty of themselves to an odd-couple routine that might in other hands seem stale: Collette’s a hard-nosed individualist; Wever’s a nurturer who better knows how to speak to victims, as she does in scenes that show the softness and heart that lie behind Wever’s usual tough attitude on screen. But aspects of the show’s depiction of the race to justice feel nearly as disconcerting as its depiction of the mishandling of Marie’s case feel assured. The tendency to treat any method as within bounds in pursuit of a larger sort of justice is both big-hearted and troubling if thought through. Even monsters have, in our legal system, the right to a fair trial.
But “Unbelievable,” at its best, is focused less on the system at large than on one individual ground up by it. It tells its story — directed in the first few installments by Lisa Cholodenko with lack of adornment or narrative excess — without flash and with a humanistic sense of the ways in which Marie suffers. Unlike fellow Netflix streamer “13 Reasons Why,” there’s no relish here, no sense that a young woman’s pain is inherently entertaining. This series has things it wants to say: That it says them plainly is a virtue, and allows us to see the story more clearly. As a document of trauma, overcome both through justice and through a hard-won fight to find self-worth, “Unbelievable” soars.
“Unbelievable.” Netflix. Sept. 13. Eight episodes (all screened for review).
Executive Producers: Susannah Grant, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Lisa Cholodenko, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon, Katie Couric, Richard Tofel, Neil Barsky, Robyn Semien, and “Marie.”