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‘Unbelievable’ frames the focus on the victim in Moving New Series

Netflix’s new show Unbelievable focusses on multiple real life cases of rape and the two detectives who joined forces to find the unbelievable links between the attacks.

The show handles the violent crimes in a sensitive way, not shying away from the damage caused, never hiding details, but framing the focus solely on the victim.

The first episode focuses on young woman Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever, fresh off summer’s Booksmart.) Marie has aged out of foster care to independent living where she is raped by an intruder. Marie has to recount her attack to police officer, she is then asked to give the details to Detective Parker (Eric Lange) who just arrived. He questions her with the delicacy of a sledge hammer, pushing an already fragile Marie to the edge.

Marie is sent to hospital for invasive examinations, and medication for pregnancy and STDs. She is then asked, for the third time, to recount her experience to the doctor. She makes her way to the police station after this, on her own, and interviewed again by Det. Parker and a colleague. It’s a tough watch as a viewer and director Lisa Cholodenko does an excellent job of highlighting the growing stress and disconnect Marie is feeling. The detectives poke holes in her story and once finished with her, explain she now has to write out the experience in a written statement. It’s an exhausting watch that makes you question just how a criminal justice system can get it so wrong.

What happens after this, is even more upsetting. The detective’s start to question Marie’s plausibility, along with her foster mother, and in an excruciating scene they push her to admit she made up the whole attack and recount her statement. This is clearly a lie, but an exhausted Marie just wants the whole thing to go away and to regain her life. You can read the article that Unbelievable was based on to find out in detail how this gross misconduct happened.

By episode two we move on two years to Colorado and meet Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever, The Walking Dead) on her way to investigate the rape of a young girl, living alone. Viewers will find similarities between this case and Marie’s case are striking and confronting. Watching Duvall handle the victim with a slow, calm manner is the perfect antidote to the blood curdling interviews in episode one, and highlights the sensitive ways a rape case can be handled. The victim is given time and reassurance, guided through the process at their own pace, and reassured multiple times that they are in control. It should not be lost on audiences that Duvall is a female detective, dealing with a female victim, in a very female centred crime. The show does not hammer home this fact, instead letting the real life facts speak for themselves, but it raises many questions about the sensitivity and training detectives receive around these cases, and how the gender divide can feed in to this.

In a chance conversation with her husband later that evening, detailing the case as she thinks aloud, he realises there are a striking similarities between this case and a case being investigated at the station he works at.

By episode three we are introduced to our third heroine, Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette, Hereditary) in a no nonsense role that proves this woman truly can do anything. A lone ranger, she is initially dismissive of Heller, retaining control of her case and coy about sharing resources, until the women realise they could have stumbled on to a worrying trend. If Detective’s from different jurisdictions don’t share information with each other, could the perpetrator know this, and be using it to his advantage?

It’s from this point that the show has it’s mission and Collete and Heller are a perfect partnership, yet creator Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) never falls in to tropes or loses sight of the importance of the case. Both women are seen to push and push hard, be just as forceful as the detectives seen in the first episode, and refuse to let hunches drop.

Alongside their storyline, we flash back to see how the recanting of Marie’s story has far larger repercussions than she anticipated, and how her life is now forever altered not just by the brutal assault, but by the mishandling of her case – which the county take her to court over.


Unbelievable is the rare kind of tv that is all at once harrowing, smart, engaging and at times fun and funny. The fact that is actually based on a series of true crimes IS unbelievable, and Grant never sensationalises the crimes for higher ratings.

Once you have watched the show, I urge you to look in to the true facts behind the case. Reporter Ken Armstrong, who broke the story, has shared his reaction in a series of 24 tweets, the first 7 you can see below. 

In @Netflix‘s #Unbelievable, Marie is a teen who reports being raped. I was one of the reporters who first told Marie’s full story. To me, Marie is not a character. She is someone who trusted me with her story, painful as it was. Here are Marie’s and my thoughts on the show:

In the show’s 1st episode, Marie, after reporting her rape, goes to the hospital for an exam. In the scene, we learn how many swabs are taken. Where they’re taken from. And what Marie is told after—that she might start thinking of killing herself. Each detail is accurate.

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.

This 8-part series is the 4th way this story has been told. W/ @txtianmillerI was part of the first 3: A @ProPublica @MarshallProjstory: A@ThisAmerLife episode w/@RobynSemien: A @penguinrandom book:

Knowing this story would become a dramatized series, T (he goes by T) and I had concerns. Reporters become protective of stories. We want their lessons to come through. Reporters become protective of people. We want them to ring true.
That’s why I say that to me, Marie is not a character. Jeff Mason, the detective who charged Marie with lying, is not a character. He is a cop who sat with me and owned his mistakes, horrific as they were.
T and I got lucky: Unbelievable’s cast and crew, it turned out, were protective of the story, too. One of my all-time favorite shows is “Justified.” Its executive producer, Sarah Timberman, became executive producer for “Unbelievable,” along with @katiecouric and others.

Have you started Unbelievable? What did you think about it? Let us know in the comments.

When teenager Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) files a police report claiming she’s been sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home, the investigating detectives, as well as the people closest to her, come to doubt the truth of her story. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) meet while investigating an eerily similar pair of intruder rapes and partner to catch a potential serial rapist.

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