Based on a 2015 ProPublica article, Netflix‘s latest series “Unbelievable” delves into the inadequacies of the American justice system in cases of rape.
“Unbelievable“ created by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman; Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, Toni Collette; Netflix
Netflix is currently on a run of producing bingeable, heartwrenching true-life stories, establishing itself over and over again as the king of streaming. It started with “Making a Murderer,” a documentary about an exonerated man accused of committing another murder. Evolved into “When They See Us,” the incredible true story of the exonerated five. Now it’s taken a stronghold with the latest limited-series “Unbelievable,” the story of a woman charged with false reporting after recanting an incident of rape.
Inspired by a ProPublica article published in 2015 called ” An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” the series begins in the state of Washington where 18-year-old Marie Adler (a tremendous performance by Kaitlyn Dever) details being raped to a police officer with her ex-foster mother present. Later, she is asked to recall the rape again and again and again by Detective Robert Parker (played by Eric Lange), Detective Pruitt (Bill Fegerbakke), and the medical staff in charge of her rape kit. Adler is treated coldly, her feelings tossed aside, a direct representation of how she must have felt after being switched from one foster parent to another as a child.
Ultimately, Detectives Parker and Pruitt make the determination that Marie must be lying upon finding minor inconsistencies in her story and after her former foster mother expresses some doubt. Coercing her into recanting her story both verbally and in writing, eventually, Marie is charged with false reporting. As a result, on top of being sexually assaulted, Marie loses friends who felt betrayed, housing, and even a job at a retail store.
As a man, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be stalked and assaulted in such a manner, let alone having to relive the incident over and over again to a group of individuals that clearly don’t believe me. For them, the stakes aren’t as high as they are for the victim. She’ll live with this for the rest of her life while they can go home at the end of the day and put it in the past.
In subjecting Marie to this level of scrutiny, you are in essence abusing her again. Ken Armstong, co-author of the ProPublica piece says as much in a lengthy thread on Twitter vouching for the show:
3/ I know, because I've read the real-life medical report. The scene is clinical, unadorned…and powerful.
Susannah Grant, the series' showrunner, wanted to capture how an investigation can become its own form of trauma. To do that, she let the facts speak for themselves.
— Ken Armstrong (@bykenarmstrong) September 16, 2019
The series and Dever, in particular, did an excellent job at portraying how the real Marie must-have felt. It resonated with me and will forever make me reconsider my reactions to stories like these whenever they come out.
We’re then introduced to Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) who is investigating a second rape, this time in the state of Colorado. Unlike in Marie’s case, Detective Duvall pays close attention to the story and the victim, Amber Stevenson (Danielle Macdonald), telling the story. Here we learn that the details of Stevenson’s rape are similar to Marie’s.
In doing her due diligence, Detective Duvall learns of a similar rape case opened by Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). This kicks off perhaps the best female buddy cop duo to memory, which ultimately leads to the arrest and imprisonment of Chris McCarthy (Blake Ellis) for life.
In many ways, Netflix’s “Unbelievable” is this year’s most incredible achievement in television. Many times this story would have taken the typical crime-series approach and simply become a whodunit story of sorts. Instead of plot twists and the edge-of-your-seat suspense sequences, however, what showrunner Susannah Grant does is to make the show about the women, as it should be.