Wever. Collette. Tolman. Fall TV’s most indelible detectives show what it means to care
Two new series — Netflix’s “Unbelievable,” which arrived last week, and “Emergence,” which premieres Sept. 24 on ABC — are built around female cops and the girls who need them. The first, a limited series starring Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, is available to watch from beginning to end, and it’s worth watching from beginning to end; the second, for which only the pilot was available to review, is quite promising; I will absolutely watch the second episode on the basis of the first, and not just because Allison Tolman stars in it. Though that would be reason enough.
Although the former is a fact-based procedural and the latter a science-fiction conspiracy thriller, each visits familiar territory in fresh ways, not unrelated to matters of gender, and is anchored and enlivened by its down-to-earth leads — not the sort of women American television typically casts as police detectives, who might fall back on runway modeling if law enforcement doesn’t work out. Each is a story about what it means to care.
Created by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), mystery writer Ayelet Waldman and her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, “Unbelievable” follows the lines of “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a 2015 article by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong co-published by the Marshall Project and ProPublica. (It was also the basis of “Anatomy of Doubt,” an episode of “This American Life.”) The names have been changed, to protect the screenwriters and whatever dramatic additions and departures they have decided to take, though the detectives have been cast roughly in the image of their originals.
Like the article, the series switches between two places and times. We begin in the Seattle suburb of Lynwood, Wash., in 2008, where teenager Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is raped, reports it and — under pressure from detectives, who are influenced by the doubts of Marie’s former foster mother — recants. (The series does not fail to note that she has been violated twice.) Having grown up in foster care, Marie is an essentially defenseless person who believes she can take care of herself. “I don’t need help,” she tells a counselor. “I just need bad things to stop happening.” And to a friend: “When they’re bigger than you, you can’t win.”
Meanwhile — which is to say, three years later, in Colorado — Det. Karen Duvall (Wever) learns from her husband, Max (Austin Hébert), that the rape case she’s working on bears similarities to one being investigated in the nearby division where he works. This brings her into contact and, eventually, partnership with the more experienced, better funded, not-as-jaded-as-she-seems Det. Grace Rasmussen (Collette). You will realize quickly that these cases have something to do with Marie’s.
The first hour, which focuses on Marie, can be tough going; the second, which introduces the detectives, doesn’t lighten the mood exactly, but it introduces a note of hope — as well as responsible adults who listen, and learn to listen better. That they are women investigating a crime against women, and one often mishandled or given low priority — there are, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of rape kits lying unprocessed in the nation’s police departments — is not incidental. “This one,” says Rasmussen, “we’re figuring out on our own.”
Apart from some impressionistic sequences to mask the worst violence — you might want to keep a remote handy, anyway — there’s nothing fancy about the direction, by Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner and Grant. The storytelling is straightforward, shaped to the emotional curve of Marie’s story, as she tries to get on with a life that seems to be contracting around her — Dever, impassively terrific, puts up a shield and acts behind it — and the quiet methodical doggedness of the investigation. (Some moments of heightened suspense are provided for, you know, heightened suspense.) The classic Wary New Partners angle is exploited just enough, or maybe a hair more than just enough; more often, Duvall and Rasmussen take turns reminding the other to keep calm when work gets frustrating.
The series has some points to make, which are variously worked into or laid on top of the action, but even when the script highlights statistics, it feels appropriate enough, and germane to the sociopolitical moment. When Duvall explains to a college kid, who thinks a classmate might be the serial rapist she’s looking for, that forcing a woman to have sex is rape, one feels the Brett Kavanaugh hearings may have been fresh in the writer’s mind. We learn something, as well, about domestic violence among police officers, how prevalent it is, and how unlikely it is to lead to an arrest.
It’s worth mentioning that “Unbelievable” does not make the criminal a character; indeed, he’s barely seen, and when he is, he isn’t allowed to say much. Too often, serial criminals are made interesting, even glamorous; we are invited to tiptoe through their traumatic backstories, to look over their shoulders as they plot their next attack, or engage their pursuers in games of cat and mouse. “Unbelievable” sticks close to its protagonists instead. It’s rarely out of Marie’s company in the 2008 timeline, or away from Grace and/or Karen in 2011. They’re who matters.
Set in the non-fictional Long Island, N.Y., town of Southold, established with shots of a lighthouse and a neon sign that reads “SODA RESTAURANT,” “Emergence” opens with a Spielberg gambit — tremolo strings vibrate with anticipation as a safety pin becomes magnetized and power winks out across town. We meet Jo Evans (Tolman), squinting awake in the dead of night, an obviously regular sort of person who will presently be identified as the police chief. Called to the site of what appears to be a plane crash, on a beach, she discovers a young girl hiding in the grass (Alexa Swinton). The girl, who is wearing a “Toy Story” T-shirt — because it is never not time in the Disney corporation to practice vertical integration — has no memory and not a scratch on her.
She attaches herself to Jo, who takes her home for safekeeping, where she acquires the placeholder name Piper. Before too long, people who are not who they say they are come around to claim her, and Piper seems as surprised as you’ll be — more surprised, probably — when strange electromagnetic phenomena begin to occur around her. By the end of the pilot, Piper’s welfare has become an extended family affair, including Jo’s ex-husband, Alex (Donald Faison); her father, Ed (Clancy Brown), a former firefighter looking pretty hale despite cancer; and daughter, Mia (Ashley Aufderheide), who sees in Piper the younger sister her (not completely) estranged parents will never give her. There is also an “investigative reporter” (Owain Yeoman) — it says so on his business card — and a helpful police officer (Robert Bailey Jr.).
This is a not-unfamiliar premise. “Stranger Things” springs most quickly to mind, as another story of a strange young girl escaping from a dark officialdom, but there have been other series and films on the theme, including Alfonso Cuarón and Markus Friedman’s short-lived series “Believe,” the Drew Barrymore film “Firestarter” and even “E.T.,” in its way. There will be complications down the line, of course; given that this is a series, the complications will doubtless acquire complications of their own — if enough people show up and stick around to watch.
I hope they do. Tolman, who sprang into public consciousness in the first season of “Fargo,” in which she also played a police person, is a great gift to television. (Between that series and this one, she starred in the delicate “Downward Dog,” also for ABC.) Here, as elsewhere, and quite like Wever in “Unbelievable,” she’s solid, humorous, skeptical, tough, warm, human, homey, life-sized — she can express authority tossing off a line such as “That sounds great. I’ll have some of that too.” She can fill the screen with thought. If it’s not quite fair to say that she single-handedly transforms “Emergence” from a decent genre show into something richer, it’s not far off, either.
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