Even if it weren’t excellent in its own right, Netflix’s Unbelievable would be notable for how easily it passes the bechdel test, a litmus for how a work of art deals with its female characters. In order to pass this test, a story must have (1) at least two female characters, who (2) speak to each other about (3) a topic other than men. If this sounds like a low bar, that’s kind of the point, considering how many books, movies, and television series fall short of what would seem at face value to be such an achievable goal. I mention this first not because Unbelievable doesn’t stand on its own right—it is superbly written, directed, and acted—but because it effortlessly passes the bechdel test while achieving a far greater feat. Specifically, it capitalizes on the dynamics between its female protagonists to convey the awful fact of sexual assault without capitulating to despair.
The limited series, based on real-life events, begins with the story of Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), the victim of a rape by an unknown assailant, a horrifying experience in and of itself but one compounded by the fact that the investigating officers do not believe Marie’s account. They, in fact, end up charging her with reporting a false statement.
Obviously, this series is not an easy watch, and viewers should proceed with caution, as the show flashes back to Marie’s assault. It is worth noting, however, that the show never flirts with sensationalism; rather, far from being gratuitous, every scene demonstrates intentionality. Marie’s flashbacks, then, consistently give the viewer a sense of the trauma she endures as those around her doubt that her assault even took place.
While continuing to follow Marie’s story, the narrative then expands to include a different—though, we soon learn, connected—case. In this investigation, though, the primary detective, Karen Duvall (Meritt Wever), not only believes the victim, Amber, (Danielle MacDonald) but demonstrates genuine concern for her. Especially compelling is the way the show deftly roots Duvall’s compassion in her faith during such encounters. In fact, one scene serves as a model for how to evangelize thoughtfully: When Amber inquires about the words “Here Am I. Send Me” affixed to the dashboard of Duvall’s car, Duvall responds, “It’s just a reminder of what I’m doing. It’s from Isaiah. God shows up looking for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit. He says, ‘Whom shall I send?’” She leaves it there, and the two exchange a fleeting smile. This moment, so adeptly acted by Wever and MacDonald, somehow recognizes the awfulness of what has happened to Amber as well as the hope of consolation.
From here, the show takes on the characteristics of a police procedural, yet even in this aspect, it utilizes the standard approach to such content for more interesting purposes. Yes, we get to watch Duvall follow false leads and interview potential perpetrators, but the most compelling moments play out of the tension between her and another detective, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), as they work to track down a serial rapist. Rasmussen, an agnostic skeptic who pursues justice though she can’t find her way to its source, stands in sharp contrast with Duvall, the faithful servant who slugs away at her job, believing even in her most frustrating moments that what she does matters.
Rather than pit these two characters against each other, though, the writers of the show explore how these two characters’ worldviews temper each other. Throughout, we encounter the unflinching acknowledgement of evil’s existence alongside the contention that redemption is no less real. As the series reaches its conclusion, victims and detectives glimpse this truth. And ultimately the real accomplishment of Unbelieveabe is that we do, too. (Netflix)