With shows like Mindhunter, Tiger King, Narcos, and now Unbelievable (2019), Netflix has truly popularised True Crime as a genre in the last few years. There is something inherent with this genre that makes it so binge-worthy. Much like the detectives in the story, the audience cannot rest until they know everything about a case. Unbelievable (2019) achieves that very well.
The narrative has two stories running simultaneously. One has two female Colorado Detectives handling different cases in different districts in the state. They soon realize their cases share the nature of the assault and combine forces. The other story is of a teenage girl named Marie, one of the first victims from another state, Washington. Marie’s story plays out in 2008, three years before the two detectives start their investigation in 2011.
This structure works out well for one reason. We get some time to take our mind off the investigation and absorb it. We dive deep into what an abuse victim might go through psychologically. The separate stories do feel disconnected for the most part, but it never withdraws from the experience. Both stories attempt to hit back at how flawed the system was, but Marie’s story highlights that. Her story begins with the two investigation detectives finding holes in her testimony and trying to cross-question her claims.
After reading the true story I’ve come to understand Marie’s true story was far worse than the show depicted. In the real story, the investigation team mishandled the forensics, did not examine the hospital’s medical tests, and almost purposely closed Marie’s case within a few days. The show, however, doesn’t handle those details well.
I never truly felt the detectives handled the case as poorly as the show wanted to. Even re-watching those scenes and knowing the ending, I’m only left feeling there was an unfortunate miscommunication. Something that would’ve been solved if the meetings were handled with a therapist or psychologist around. The only thing these detectives seem guilty of is not understanding Marie emotionally and psychologically. Is that an unfortunate flaw with the system? Yes. But is that something I should hold against two police officers? Not really. With such hard-hitting journalism as the source material, I can’t help but feel Netflix chose to play this one safe to avoid controversy. What happens in the show is a tame version of the truth. Even if it were true to life, it feels closer to frustrating and unfortunate rather than sheer injustice. This is where the show slightly missed the mark.
That aside, this mini-series is crisp and efficient with its story. It makes good use of all its episodes and even chooses to not have an opening theme which I felt was refreshing. The performances by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever as the two detectives and Kaitlyn Dever as Marie are thoroughly engaging. Despite the tragedy and their gloomy lives, we get a good sense of their personality just from their performances. Another thing the show is excellent at is not making it a feel like misandry with heavy-handed woman empowerment themes. To balance out the serial rapist and Marie’s unjust police officers we also see supportive husbands and dedicated special agents. Yes, this is a very empowering show for women but that is not at the cost of portraying all men as scum. I’m grateful for that.
Unbelievable (2019) mostly does justice to the true events of the Washington and Colorado serial rape cases but pulls its punches when hitting back at flawed police procedures. Strong performances from all three lead actresses and a well-structured narrative make it stand tall in Netflix’s True Crime Library.
Watch the cast and crew talk about the show, here.