Review by Emma Ledford
Texas CASA Communications Specialist
Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault, as the series it reviews deals heavily with the issue.
“‘Cause even with good people, even with people that you can kinda trust, if the truth is inconvenient, and if the truth doesn’t, like, fit, they don’t believe it.” – Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) in “Unbelievable” Episode 7
Released in September on Netflix, “Unbelievable” is an 8-episode drama based on the true story of Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a then-18-year-old transitioning out of foster care. Adler is raped by a stranger in her apartment at a transitional living facility. After reporting the crime to the police, she is discredited and charged with false reporting. Meanwhile, two detectives from neighboring communities (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) team up to chase a serial rapist who, unbeknownst to them, uses the same MO as the attacker Adler describes. The series follows two frustratingly separate storylines: Adler’s difficult journey, and the detectives’ race to bring the rapist who terrorized her and other vulnerable women to justice.
“Unbelievable” is not an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile one. Here are three reasons why.
1. It’s highly relevant to CASA, child welfare and those who work with survivors.
Adler was in foster care for years before moving to the transitional living facility apartment at age 18, and this plays a significant role in how the events around her case unfold. She is, sadly, no stranger to abuse or traumatic experiences, so she calmly and plainly relays the story of her assault to the police. They’re already taken aback by her reaction, or, in their eyes, a lack of a reaction. To make things worse they receive a call from a former foster mom expressing doubt about Adler’s story and explaining her history. They take Adler in for more interviewing. She’s forced to relive the experience over and over again, under more and more belligerent questioning, until she finally gives up and “admits” the report is false.
We, as CASAs, know that people respond to trauma differently, and not always in the ways we expect. Had the detectives questioning Adler kept that in the front of their minds – and used a trauma-informed lens – they might have given her the support she deserved from the beginning and prevented so much pain in the aftermath.
The show also touches on the importance of self-care and work-life balance. In one scene, deep in the hunt for the rapist, Detective Rasmussen (Collette) tries to convince Detective Duvall (Wever) to go home and get some sleep.
“Yeah, the work’s important. But if you let it be the most important thing in your life you’re gonna find yourself in trouble,” Rasmussen says. “I know in the thick of things it can feel unnatural to step away, but it’s a survival skill.”
While Duvall doesn’t listen (which comes as no surprise to viewers once they get to know the intensely dedicated detective), the sentiment is there, and it’s a good one for all of us to remember.
2. It tackles the difficult topic of assault skillfully, faithfully and with grace.
It’s clear that the cast, creators and writers worked hard to do the story justice with respect to Adler and the other survivors. The show successfully toes the line of making Adler’s experience real and heartbreaking for the viewer, but never in a way that feels exploitative.
Too many shows and films rely on violence against women as a dramatic crutch or a stepping stone for character development. “Unbelievable” does not fall into this. It doesn’t shy away from depicting the terror of sexual assault – Episode 1, full of flashbacks to Adler’s experience, is especially difficult to watch – but it does so with thoughtfulness and clear intention.
Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall speak with multiple survivors throughout the show. Each survivor grapples with their traumatic experiences in very different and equally believable ways, and the detectives approach them with grace and compassion. Duvall’s trauma-informed approach especially sticks out – and you can’t help but wish she had questioned Adler instead of those men who did.
Lastly – and most importantly of all – it’s approved by Marie Adler herself.
3. It’s just plain good.
Dever gives a stunning and raw performance as Adler, often conveying more in her moments of silence than when she speaks. When she’s forced to relive her trauma time and time again, only to be failed by the justice system, your heart breaks with her. Collette and Wever’s onscreen chemistry is immediate, easy and believable, and their opposites-attract “buddy cop” relationship gives the show much-needed moments of levity and humor. Great acting and great writing come together to create a great crime drama. Even for those of us who are already familiar with the real-life story, every episode leaves us at the edge of our seats wanting more. That’s not an easy thing for a show to do.
“Unbelievable” is tough, but it’s worth it. It shines a light on foster care, trauma, how we treat survivors of sexual assault, and other themes highly relevant to the work we do. We hope you’ll give it a try.