A new Netflix series tells of two women detectives who join forces to track a serial rapist, ultimately proving the importance of believing victims. Those who believed in bringing the story to television were an unusually distinguished group.
There's a piece of dialogue in the final episode of Netflix's Unbelievable that still haunts the showrunner.
"A character points out that sexual assault is the only crime in which people accuse the victim," says Susannah Grant. "You know, if you say, 'Hey, I was carjacked,' no one will say, 'I don't know - was she really?' It's different for victims of this kind of trauma. It's a really interesting question we need to ask ourselves."
The powerful eight-episode limited series, which premiered September 13, doesn't pretend to have all the answers — but it does open the lines of discussion.
Adapted from a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning article from The Marshall Project and ProPublica ("An Unbelievable Story of Rape," by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller), the fact-based drama begins when a young woman named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) reports she's been raped in her Washington state apartment by a man who bound and gagged her.
After her foster mothers begin to raise doubts and male police officers point out inconsistencies in her account, she concedes it may have just been a dream.
However, two dogged detectives (Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) soon begin to unravel the truth as they pursue a possible serial rapist. "The story is completely gripping on a human level and on a narrative level, and it connects to a potent issue in our culture," Grant adds. "Even someone who has not experienced sexual assault can relate to the loss of power and the tremendous gender imbalances. It's an epidemic."
Ayelet Waldman felt an immediate bond with the source material. At age 14, she was sexually assaulted. "I didn't say anything to anyone, even though I considered myself a forceful, confident person," she recalls.
Waldman went to Harvard Law School and became a criminal defense attorney with a focus on women's issues, then went on to write books such as A Really Good Day, Love and Treasure and the Mommy-Track Mystery series. When she read the article, she knew she had found her next project.
"I went to my friend Sarah Timberman and said, 'You have to read this, and let's make it into a television show,'" she recalls. "She did and said, 'Hell, yeah.'" Grant, who won an Oscar in 2001 for her screenplay for Erin Brockovich, also brought the story to Timberman (Justified , Elementary).
Meanwhile, veteran journalist Katie Couric joined in, participating early on in lunch meetings with the group.
"We're all women who have thought about and want to work toward a vision of social justice," Waldman says. "We want to make a difference. That motivates us."
Waldman wanted to get one significant man involved in the creative process: Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as well as the acclaimed The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Wonder Boys. He also happens to be her husband of more than 25 years.
(Ultimately, the executive producers included Grant, Timberman, Waldman, Chabon, Couric, Carl Beverly, Lisa Cholodenko, Richard Tofel, Neil Barsky, Robyn Semien and Marie.)
"We've been trying to work on projects for a while, and this seemed ideal," Chabon explains over the phone. Listening on another line, Waldman chimes in, "And the story is incredibly compelling. It's easy to see the appeal of the piece and impulse to turn it into a series."
Their collaborative process, they say, is a rigid one. "We outline and hash everything together. I write the first draft and Michael writes the second draft and raises the level to exquisite perfection — and then I roll back the perfection in the third draft," Waldman says. (Chabon jokes, "Yup, she said it!") They worked a bit on the pilot and also cowrote the fourth episode.
Recreating traumatic real-life events for the screen posed a challenge. Chabon admits that certain facts and events didn't necessarily present themselves in the right order.
On a more pressing level, he says, "You're handling sensitive material and presenting acts of violence against women, and you have to walk a fine line between accuracy and exploitation. You want to avoid anything that can be interpreted as sexualizing and titillating in some way."
Many survivors were consulted, but out of respect for their anonymity, all the names and identifying characteristics were altered.
The producers turned to Dever to portray Marie, the young woman at the heart of the story, who was ostracized from her community after her rape accusation was deemed a lie. Timberman had worked with her on Justified.
"She has such tremendous qualities of vulnerabilities and is an absolute shape-shifter," Grant raves, noting that Marie is light-years away from the hyperverbal high schooler Dever played in the hit indie film Booksmart. "Kaitlyn really embodied a character who's consistently determined to find the best version of her life, even as the walls start to close in around her."
But it's the whip-smart detectives who are the true superheroines of Unbelievable. Uniting from separate departments, they never once snipe at each other as they work days and nights to crack the complicated case. (The assailant left behind no DNA.)
"We often see women on TV or in the media that are backbiting," Waldman says. "Because these women worked together in ways that, frankly, men do, they solved the crime. There's something quintessentially female about their cooperative impulse that really adds to the story."
Wever and Collette, both Emmy winners in the comedy category — for Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara, respectively — disappear into their unassuming roles. "My gosh, what they brought into the relationship, the push-pull between these two women and the quiet collaboration, is spectacular," Grant adds. "They found a way to make the pairing work and really complement each other."
What should viewers take away from a compelling yet emotionally searing drama that examines the repercussions of sexual assault? "I hope people come away with an awareness of the inconsistent and unreliable way in which many rape investigations are conducted across the country," Grant notes. "What Marie went through is not at all unique."
Waldman, a self-confessed TV binger, recommends that viewers watch a couple episodes at a time to process all the information and think about the issues — and do a little self-reflection. "People should look in the mirror and think, 'Would I have reacted in the same way as these foster mothers?' They might change their minds a few times."
Chabon has loftier expectations. "I'd be satisfied if this show contributed to changing the conversation around women and believing women and believing claims of sexual assault and the processing of rape kits and how assault is handled within families," he says. "I'd like to see that. Even if it helps in a little way."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019
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