Unbelievable belongs to that particular branch of TV shows of stories inspired by true events: they look entirely fictional, when told through the screen, but are much more sweetened than reality. Most recently, When They See Us proved to be an excellent example of this process, and Chernobyl, Unorthodox, and Narcos fit the profile.
The real story dates back to 2008: Marie, a young teenager from Lynnwood, Washington, is tied up in her apartment and raped. In reporting the assault to the police, she surprisingly becomes the culprit, instead of the victim, and ends up being charged for making it all up. Two years later, the Colorado police investigate a serial rapist who might just be the guy Marie had identified. In 2015, the collection of these events became a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong for ProPublica and the Marshall Project, under the title An Unbelievable Story of Rape.
Three years later, Netflix decided it was the best time to get a miniseries out of it, which premiered on the platform on September 13, 2019. It was critically acclaimed, nominated for 4 Golden Globes and 4 Emmy Awards. Unbelievable is similar to other procedural dramas like American Crime Story and Broadchurch, except for one crucial feature: it lacks melodrama. The focus is not so much on the reasons that made someone become evil – like Mindhunter – or the protagonist’s inner feelings – like DuVernay’s take on the Central Park Jogger Case – but on a harrowing but blunt, sometimes plodding but never vapid cat and mouse story. In this case, the cats are two expert detectives – Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) – who have to fight against two different mice: the rapist and a predominantly sexist system of injustice.
The initial assault case turns into an investigation on Marie’s credibility, thanks to the deceptive approach of the detectives and the confused account made by the victim, due to her recent trauma. For this reason, the pilot aims to show this tricky shift in detail: close-ups on the protagonist (Kaitlyn Dever), irregular flashbacks and desaturated lights, low-key acting, no soundtrack. Grant, Chabon, and Waldman could have shown the rape as the one of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, violent, nasty, and over the top. They decided to instead focus on police interrogations – following a completely different style, closer to other Netflix’s documentaries like Making a Murderer or The Confession Tapes.
After settling a lawsuit against the city of Lynnwood for $150,000 and experiencing an increase in attention from the media after the series was released, Marie is now a long haul truck driver and admits she wants to stay out of the spotlight and move on with her life. “I didn’t want to cower in the corner, I didn’t want it to ruin the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I wasn’t going to let him destroy me.”