Two women leaning against a wall with intense looks on their faces
Merritt Wever (left) and Toni Collette (right) as Colorado detectives.


Co-created and executive produced
by Susannah Grant ’84


A young woman is attacked in her home by a masked intruder, who ties her up, gags her and assaults her for an extended period of time. When he finally leaves, she’s traumatized and desperate for help, but the police are dismissive and even hostile. Eventually, a pair of indomitable detectives track down the man responsible and bring him to justice. It sounds like an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but the Netflix miniseries Unbelievable, created by Susannah Grant ’84, along with novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, uses a familiar template to tell a more compassionate story, placing the experience of the survivors of sexual assault on equal footing with the investigation process, and minimizing the presence of the perpetrator.

It’s also, like many Law & Order episodes, ripped from the headlines, based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica/Marshall Project article that was later turned into a book and an episode of This American Life. Names have been changed and some details have been fictionalized, but the core of the story is true, as detectives in two different jurisdictions in Colorado realize that their rape investigations are focused on the same person. Soon they’ve come across a whole string of attacks, and they eventually coordinate a large-scale manhunt for a serial rapist attacking women across multiple states.

Two detectives coordinate a multi-state manhunt for a serial rapist.

One of those women is Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), and her story forms half of the series, which begins with an episode devoted entirely to the aftermath of her attack in Lynnwood, Wash., in 2008. While the detectives in Colorado (played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) are fiercely dedicated to finding their suspect and supporting his victims, cops in Lynnwood are confrontational with Marie, a troubled young woman who spent most of her childhood in foster care. They discount her claims as false and pressure her into saying she made them up. At the end of the opening episode, she’s standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

One picture of two people leaning against a wall and one picture of three people standing in a police station
Left, Charlie McDermott and Patricia Fa’asua as counselors to the character played by Kaitlyn Dever, right.

Three years later, Detective Karen Duvall (Wever) picks up a rape case in Golden, Colo., and discovers similarities to a case in nearby Westminster being investigated by Detective Grace Rasmussen (Collette). Unlike the (male) detectives in Lynnwood, Duvall and Rasmussen believe the victims’ narratives, and they pull every resource they can in order to track down the man responsible. Following the first episode, the show shifts back and forth between the two stories, showing how Marie struggles to put her life back together following her assault (and a public admission of lying), and how Duvall and Rasmussen painstakingly gathers evidence to bring down the serial rapist.

The dual timelines are sometimes confusing, and there’s more-obvious urgency to the detectives’ pursuit of the rapist than there is to Marie’s despair. But the performances are all strong, and the pacing picks up as the two threads get closer to converging.

Wever and Collette have lively chemistry that’s afforded the time it needs to develop, one of the advantages of adapting this story as an eight-episode series rather than a feature film. Duvall is sensitive and caring, while Rasmussen is sharper and more aggressive, and it takes a little while for their styles to line up.

They eventually make for a perfect team, though, and Grant (who wrote or co-wrote five of the episodes, and directed two) and her collaborators depict just enough of the detectives’ personal lives to give a sense of them as people without distracting from the central story. The show never forgets whose experience is most important.

Bell is a Las Vegas writer and critic.

Photos by Beth Dubber/Netflix (3)