Sexual violence has long been television’s favourite transgression. True Detective season one opened with a murdered woman window-dressed to look like a kinky Lovecraftian effigy. Until the outcry over Sansa Stark’s wedding night, Game of Thrones featured more rapes than sword fights. The “victims” in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit were typically fed through a grinder of envelope-pushing sexual deviancy. It was practically an arms race. 

In the aftermath of #MeToo, however, it was only a matter of time before the medium’s addiction to misogynistic thuggery was interrogated. This is what Unbelievable achieves, forcefully and compellingly. 

The Netflix eight-parter goes even further than that, however. At its core, it’s an old fashioned and straightforwardly gripping thriller. But a thriller that empathises with the victims instead of glamorising the bad guy. And one that critiques rather than glorifies the police even as we breathlessly join in their pursuit.

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That is extraordinary considering it is adapted from what should, in theory at least, be the least-exciting source imaginable: a 2015 long-form feature published in the non-profit American news site ProPublica. An Unbelievable Story of Rape chronicled the appalling victim-blaming directed at an 18-year-old raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her home in Washington State in 2009. 

The woman told police how the attacker had surprised her in her bed, restraining her and then photographing her ordeal. But when she later stated that she had made the story up, the authorities, only too happy to rip up the case file, charged her with wasting their time. 

Two years on in Colorado, a number of other women were assaulted in similar circumstances. The crucial difference, as Unbelievable forcefully communicates, is that in the second instance the investigating officers were female. 

As portrayed by The Walking Dead’s Merritt Wever, Detective Karen Duvall is on the side of the traumatised women from the outset. When she teams up with Toni Collette’s no-prisoners-taking Detective Grace Rasmussen it’s obvious nothing – certainly not the good old boys at the precinct – will stand in their way. 

That’s in contrast with the chilling scepticism – even hostility – to which Marie Adler (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) is subjected to back in Washington. When this deeply distressed woman from a troubled background withdraws her claim of rape nobody is surprised that she would have made it all up. It’s what everyone – police, care workers – are secretly willing her to say anyway. 

Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in ‘Unbelievable’ (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

Unbelievable in the abstract feels like important but rather worthy television: the stuff of late-period Louis Theroux docs or a true crime podcast you never get around to finishing. Thus it’s most impressive achievement is to communicate the degree to which the male perspective is entrenched in the justice system while also spinning an engrossing yarn. 

One smart decision is to lean into noir tropes by portraying Duvall and Rasmussen as cliches straight from the thriller hit parade. Duvall is church-going and wide-eyed, slightly too sincere for her own good. Rasmussen is the boil-in-the-bag loner, who follows her gut and is a mystery even to herself. 

The serial rapist, for his part, gets all the attention he deserves: eg none at all. He’s a pathetic freak hardly worth our time. From the chilling early sequence in which the still shell-shocked Adler is brusquely required to recount her ordeal over and over by bored cops, it’s clear Unbelievable’s priorities lie with the victims and with the earnest policewomen taking up the slack from their inept male colleagues. 

Along the way a series that could have come off as a worthy yet slow moving lecture in all the ways justice fails woman is instead confirmed to be one of the year’s most addictive crime dramas. It’s the anti-True Detective and is way overdue.  

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