Lisa Cholodenko remembers the wildly conflicting sensations that washed over her when she first read ProPublica's Pulitzer Prize-winning article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape." The director was engrossed by the narrative, moved by its characterization and horrified by the events that were described.
As Cholodenko considered an offer to direct a Netflix adaptation of the story, the difficulty of the subject matter was daunting.
"It was scary," Cholodenko recalls. "It took me a minute to say yes. ... But I was grateful I did because it was a really meaningful experience."
"An Unbelievable Story of Rape" ultimately was adapted into the Netflix limited series "Unbelievable," which premiered in September to widespread acclaim. Although the show's characters are inspired by the real-life figures involved — not strict re-creations — the plot does closely follow the events as depicted in Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller's ProPublica article (as well as a 2016 "This American Life" episode produced in collaboration with the journalists).
The article, which was co-published by the Marshall Project, focuses on two central storylines. One narrative follows the experiences of a rape victim — referred to by her middle name, Marie — whose 2008 assault in Washington state was doubted by police to the point that they charged her with filing a false report. In a parallel narrative, the article documents two Colorado detectives' 2011 investigation into a serial rapist.
"These were real people," showrunner Susannah Grant says. "We tried to keep in our minds the idea that at some point we might have to look them in the eye and say, 'I handled your story with respect and integrity.'"
The first episode of "Unbelievable" shines a sobering light on the dehumanizing process rape victims endure as Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) is prodded and probed after reporting her assault. A parade of male law enforcement figures also ask Marie to describe the incident in detail and, as apparent discrepancies surface amid the retellings, her account comes into question. In depicting this series of events, the show's creative team illustrates how trauma can affect sexual assault survivors' ability to accurately recall the incident in question.
That topic rose to national prominence last year, during the contentious confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Without expressing an opinion on Christine Blasey Ford's sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh, "Unbelievable" executive producer Sarah Timberman says the dialogue surrounding Ford's recollection was filled with the types of misconceptions that the show aims to clear up.
"There are things we simply don't understand about the nature of trauma," Timberman says. "We were in the middle of making the show when one such case was on the news constantly. Whether you agreed or disagreed with arguments that were being made, it was so frustrating to hear people give voice to these things that are just misguided ideas about assault, completely unsupported by science in terms of how memory functions in the wake of a trauma."
The following episode of "Unbelievable" turns the focus to another rape victim, whose assault took place three years later in Colorado. If the first episode captured all the ways a rape probe can go wrong, the second functions as a model investigation, as soft-spoken detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) treats the victim (Danielle Macdonald) with the patience and sympathy Marie never received. Eventually, Duvall teams up with a brash, jaded detective (Toni Collette) from a nearby county to explore the possibility that a serial rapist is at large.
While "Unbelievable" presents a comparatively unflattering depiction of the Washington law enforcement officials who doubted Marie — in particular, the lead detective played by Eric Lange — the series avoids painting these figures as outright villains. The show's creative team wants the audience to develop some empathy for those characters, as misguided as their actions may be.
"They weren't bad apple guys, per say," says Cholodenko, who directed the first three episodes. "What they did was horrible and this woman's life was upside-down, but I wanted to do them justice as much as I could and present it even-handedly. Otherwise, I felt like it would just be a story where it was good girls and bad guys."
Those who have read the ProPublica article, listened to the "This American Life" episode or watched "Unbelievable's" eight episodes know that catharsis eventually does arrive for Marie. But as Grant notes, "This is the rare case where somebody who is disbelieved is ultimately vindicated — most people who are disbelieved are never vindicated."
On Oct. 16, Netflix announced that "Unbelievable" had been watched by 32 million member households in the show's first 28 days of streaming. By connecting with a mainstream audience, "Unbelievable" already has helped spread awareness of certain flaws in the criminal justice system, and cultivated a broader understanding of how victims experience and process trauma.
"It invites you to challenge your own assumptions," Timberman says. "I don't think the show means to point fingers at anybody, but it really wants to start a conversation."