Netflix limited drama series “Unbelievable,” based on a true crime case from Lynnwood, is up for four Golden Globe Awards, including best limited series or motion picture for TV. (The awards telecast is at 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5, on NBC).
Adapted for Netflix by writer Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), the series is based on the 2015 ProPublica/The Marshall Project story by T. Christian Miller and former Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong, about a Lynnwood teenager who was raped in 2008 and reported it to the police. But the police didn’t believe her and coerced her into recanting her story, she said, before charging her with making a false report. Eventually, it was found that she was one of several victims of a serial rapist, who was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
“Unbelievable” follows foster teen Marie (Kaitlyn Dever, “Justified”), who is raped. Lynnwood police detectives pressure Marie to recant after her foster mom (Elizabeth Marvel, “Homeland”) suggests Marie makes up stories for attention. Three years later, dedicated Colorado detectives Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever, “Nurse Jackie”) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette, “United States of Tara”) investigate other rape cases that eventually connect a suspect back to Marie’s assault.
“Unbelievable” changes the names of the real-life people whose experiences inspired the series because, Grant says, “everyone involved is on their own journey of either making peace with that or recovering from it … and I didn’t want a Netflix series to be a huge factor for any individual. … I felt we could tell the story without any diminishment of impact if we gave them some anonymity.”
“Unbelievable,” released in September, led current Lynnwood Police Chief Tom Davis, who was not with the department in 2008, to write a letter to the community in September, saying “the circumstances surrounding this horrendous sexual assault — to include the improper investigative decisions made — still resonates deeply with members of this department more than a decade later. … Although I was not an employee of this department in 2008 or 2011, I am no less distressed by the decisions and circumstances from 11 years ago that undoubtedly caused additional harm to the victim. This was not acceptable then and it would not be acceptable today.”
Grant didn’t want to comment on Davis’ letter, but she did answer questions about “Unbelievable,” which was filmed entirely in Southern California. (The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)
What is it about this story that made you want to tackle it as a TV series?
I usually respond on a pretty gut level and try not to overthink too much. I had a very strong gut reaction but having had the time to put some thought into it, aside from the fact it was about an obviously really important subject matter, I thought it was an opportunity to magnify the story and the character of the people involved. They all embodied some human qualities I admire so much. The idea of being able to elevate that seemed really exciting to me.
“Unbelievable” tells the story of multiple rapes. How do you portray that honestly and not shy away from the brutality of it but also tell it sensitively?
I started writing from an objective standpoint and very quickly it became clear to me that didn’t feel right because there’s so much overt or quasi-rape porn in our cultural diet — in advertising and what not — so doing it objectively I felt like no matter how sensitive we are there’s no way it’s not gonna tickle that part of viewers’ brains which is already desensitized to it, so once I figured out the only way to show these assaults was from the perspective of the person enduring them, that made a lot more sense. They’re really not physically graphic at all; they’re emotionally graphic.
Tell me about how you balanced the characterization of the cops (and the foster parents) to keep the portrayals honest and from falling into stereotype?
If you look at the statistics, the percentage of sexual assaults that are reported is staggeringly low. Those that are investigated and prosecuted are infinitesimal. So this is a huge problem. This is not a problem of a couple of bad villains out to stick it to vulnerable women. You don’t get those kind of numbers unless it’s a systemic, societal problem. Everyone is contributing to it in ways none of us are conscious of. I thought it was really important [in a Lynnwood cop character] to show somebody who really believed he is doing his job well and looking out for the little guy and could make some choices that could end up being absolutely disastrous.
Were you surprised at the Golden Globe nomination?
You know, by the time we got that nomination we had gotten a few other really nice commendations so it was lovely and I’m just thrilled that the Golden Globes is honoring a show about rape. That seems so bold and great and I’m really excited that they nominated all three of our lead actors [Collette, Dever and Wever]. They just brought such unique gifts to their roles and delivered beyond my wildest dreams.