Fall TV’s most in­deli­ble de­tec­tives

‘Un­be­liev­able’ and ‘Emer­gence’ show what it means to care

The Morning Call - - MOVIES - By Robert Lloyd

Two new se­ries — Net­flix’s “Un­be­liev­able” and “Emer­gence” 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. 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, Wash­ing­ton, 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 — De­tec­tive 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-she­seems De­tec­tive 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, 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.

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.

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.

Set in the non­fic­tional Long Is­land, New York, town of Southold, “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 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 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 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; and daugh­ter, Mia (Ash­ley Aufder­heide), who sees in Piper the younger sis­ter her (not com­pletely) es­tranged par­ents will never give her.

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. 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,” is a great gift to tele­vi­sion. 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.

BETH DUBBER/NET­FLIX

Mer­ritt Wever, left, and Toni Col­lette play de­tec­tives who come to­gether to catch a se­rial rapist in “Un­be­liev­able.”

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