Television is in the midst of a powerful reckoning with trauma and its lingering effects, spearheaded by female-focused series as varied as “The Tale,” HBO’s devastating account of childhood sexual abuse, and “Tuca & Bertie,” an animated Netflix show that contemplated sexual harassment and assault through its own surrealist lens.
“Unbelievable,” now streaming on Netflix, is far from an easy watch, but its eight episodes — about Marie (Kaitlyn Dever, of “Booksmart”), a survivor charged with lying about her rape before two female detectives uncover a string of eerily similar crimes — constitute one of the most complexly nuanced studies of sexual assault and its aftermath ever made.
Adapted from the Pulitzer-winning ProPublica investigation “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” it dramatizes real events in order to mount a larger exploration of what exactly happens when a survivor goes to police. For co-creator/showrunner Susannah Grant, taking the time to chart Marie’s nightmarish journey in painstaking detail was a major reason to make the show.
“A lot of people are familiar with the concept that the investigation often feels like a second assault,” said the Amherst College graduate, speaking during a recent visit to Boston. “But if you haven’t been through it, it’s hard to know and feel exactly what that means; this was a great opportunity to make that [idea] real for people, to take that from an abstract concept to something tangible.”
In the hours after a stranger breaks into her apartment in Washington state and assaults her, Marie is interviewed repeatedly by detectives, whose lines of questioning indicate from the outset that they’re skeptical of her report.
Grant, an Oscar nominee for writing “Erin Brokovich,” focuses the first hour of “Unbelievable” on this grueling process, which eventually undermines Marie’s faith in her own memory enough that she recants her story. It isn’t until the second episode that viewers skip three years forward to meet two committed detectives, Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), who’ve joined forces in Colorado to investigate a string of rapes, bearing similarities to Marie’s, that they believe to be perpetrated by a serial offender.
“The real north star of [“Unbelievable”] was these three women,” said Grant. “One’s fighting to be heard and to stay afloat when the seas are raging around her, and the other two just trying their hardest to do the right thing on behalf of women like her.”
Doing justice to Marie required Dever — who’s previously played kids slipping through the cracks of the system, in indie darling “Short Term 12” and on FX’s “Justified” — to fully commit, falling into the part of a woman psychologically fracturing under the weight of her traumas.
“Marie deserved my best effort,” she said, speaking by phone. “The stress I was going through in scenes, being overly emotional and emotionally drained, I thought to myself: this doesn’t even compare to what Marie felt.”
Dever said she hoped to show through her performance that there’s no one “right” way for survivors to process their experiences, nor are there ever “perfect” victims or “perfect” investigations. “People react to trauma very differently,” she said. “We can’t treat victims as one group of people; you have to treat them singularly.”
As that applies to police protocols around investigating rape, Dever said it’s important to understand how dehumanizing some practices can feel for people already intersecting with detectives on the most vulnerable days of their lives. In showing how the legal system did harm to Marie — even as individuals within it sought to help her — Dever and Grant both hope their series will ignite important discussions around how to better aid survivors and put an end to rape culture.
“I’m always interested in the notion of abuses of power in our culture,” said Grant. “And I love that there is a ready, eager audience for difficult conversations right now. A lot of people in this country really want to dig into conversations we’ve been avoiding for a long time.”