One night this past September, co-creator, executive producer, director and writer of the miniseries “Unbelievable” Susannah Grant ’84 realized that the show had achieved more success than she ever imagined possible.
“The series had been out not even a week at this point. Everyone else in my house was asleep, and I thought, I’m just going to check Twitter,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t even have a Twitter … and the number of languages that were represented in the Twitter discussion about [the show] was staggering. There was Cyrillic and Thai and Farsi and English and German, and I got weepy at the thought of all these people all around the world leaning into this challenging show.”
“Unbelievable,” which was released on Netflix on Sept. 13, was viewed by 32 million different accounts during its first 28 days on the platform, making it one of the most watched Netflix originals.
Grant, who graduated from Amherst with a bachelors in English, has since been nominated for both an Academy Award and an Emmy for her writing in television and film. Her previous work includes the screenplay for “Erin Brockovich” and writing credit on Disney’s “Pocahontas.” Although she did not always envision herself as a screenwriter, she has loved movies from a young age.
“Movies were always a big part of my life,” she said. “I loved the collective storytelling experience. The theatrical experience of sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers … I thought for a while that my way of participating in it would be as an actor, but that didn’t agree with me. It took me a while to realize that the way I wanted to be a part of it was actually to be a storyteller. And I really privilege being a part of [the storytelling] tradition. I really think of it as an American storytelling family. I really still feel so privileged that I am allowed to be a part of that extended family; it’s a source of great joy for me.”
“Unbelievable” is an adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project. The article follows the chase for a serial rapist in Washington and Colorado between 2008 and 2011, centering on the characters of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) — a pseudonym given to the first rape victim who, after intense and repeated interrogations from the police, recants her statement and then is later charged with false reporting — and two female detectives in Colorado who, after tracking down a rapist who had been evading police in Colorado for months, realize that Marie had been his first victim over three years prior.
A story of female power and an exposé of how rape victims are treated and heard within a ruthless, male-dominated criminal justice system — “Unbelievable” raises awareness of the actual effects of rape cases on victims in both the immediate aftermath and long term process of investigations. In our interview, Grant spoke of attempting to capture the special and complex “texture” of the relationships between professional female colleagues throughout the show.
The phrase “texture” precisely sums up what is captured throughout the entire mini-series (something most crime shows are unable to do). “Unbelievable” shows us the various layers within the process of dealing with rape cases — the various, complex and invisible ways victims cope (or fail to cope) with trauma, the detectives who neglect to believe, the detectives who insist on solving the crime and the various relationships tangled in these spheres.
It is clear throughout the show that the focus is on the psyches of the victims involved. In the first episode, Marie is immediately questioned by a male detective, Detective Parker (Eric Lange), who seems to interrogate her. One of her foster parents hints that because of Marie’s difficult past, she has developed attention-seeking tendencies and may be faking the rape. Another one of her foster parents agrees that she is not reacting as someone who was raped — instead acting as if nothing has happened.
As we witness Marie’s internal tension, we see her inability to take the questioning anymore, leading her to take back her story. When writing the script for the show, Grant and the other writers did a lot of research on the effect of trauma on the brain. “The truth is that it can have a very scrambling effect on somebody’s ability to remember. That was important for Marie’s story because her credibility is questioned as her memory is shaky,” she said. We just hoped that that would show that there is no one right way to respond to a truama like that, which I’ve heard is a big challenge for prosecutors with juries because they have expectations of what a victim of rape should look like. And there’s no such thing as a typical victim of rape.”
Meanwhile, Detective Duvall (Merritt Wever) responds to the rape case of Amber Stevenson, another rape victim, in an entirely different way. She takes a gentler approach to Amber, assuring her that her various ways of coping are completely normal and valid. We also see this in Detective Rasmussen (Toni Collette)’s interactions with her victim. When Rasmussen brings Duvall to her victim’s house in order to understand more about the case, it is clear that Rasmussen knows her victim well. This scene occurs in the beginning of Duvall and Rasmussen’s relationship, after they are vaguely able to connect the patterns of both of their cases; we see this relationship develop strongly throughout the course of them solving the crime.
Grant was captivated by the idea that there are different strategies a woman can adopt in a male-dominated, and generally ruthless and unpredictable, workplace, developing the two characters based off of this. As the two detectives are drawn closer together, we are able to see the “texture” of female professional colleague friendships. Grant told us that she just doesn’t just write strong women; she writes real women. This is what draws an audience in to these inspiring and dynamic, yet deeply complex characters — she is able to capture something refreshingly real.
Grant was originally drawn to adapting the story because of how deeply affected she was by all the people involved in it. Upon reading the original article, Grant recalls immediately reaching out to Sarah Timberman, another one of the show’s executive producers, telling her, “we’ve got to do this.”
“I was just so moved by … the person of Marie,” said Grant. “She says, ‘I just want to be as happy as I can be.’ I read that in the transcript of her police report, and I was so moved by that. She just absolutely refuses to be broken by life, and I thought that fight was so heroic. And then those two detectives in Colorado, I found them deeply moving in their own way as well.”
However, translating these real people into television characters came with challenges. While Grant stated that those involved in the show were “really faithful to the events of the stories” and “the facts of the case,” when creating and casting the characters “[the producers] did take a lot of creative license” in order to protect both the anonymity of the survivors and the privacy of others involved in the case. For the two detectives, who became Duvall and Rasmussen, Grant picked certain details from the actual women’s lives to integrate into the characters, such as Duvall’s faith and Rasmussen’s love of muscle cars. The rest she invented.
When asked if Rasmussen’s iconic gold El Camino was something borrowed from her real-life counterpart, Grant laughed and admitted that actually, “after the show came out she [the detective who inspired Rasmussen’s character] wrote me and said, an El Camino is not a muscle car.”
“If that’s her biggest complaint with the show. I can live with that,” she added. Speaking further about Duvall and Rasmussen’s characters and the adoration they have received from viewers, she said, “I miss them! And I know how made up they are!”
No one was more shocked or humbled by the show’s breakout success than Grant, who shared that when the show finished its run, “I knew that we had made a show that I felt was good … but I really didn’t know if there would be an appetite for it, because sexual assault is something that we as a culture spend a lot of energy not talking about.”
Despite the show’s impact, Grant said she tries “very hard not to impose an expectation on what the audience will experience … especially with film or television that feels like they could have an advocacy angle or a teaching angle … What I try to do is just tell the story with as much authenticity, empathy and integrity as possible.”
However, she chose to work on “Unbelievable” because of its potential to breach the gap. “I knew there was a world, there was a gulf of understanding between people who had experienced sexual assault and people who had not,” she said. “I thought if we could take some of those people who don’t pay attention to [sexual assault] and give them a reason to pay attention, to have them sort of hold the hand of someone who’s going through it and walk through it in their shoes, it might change people and the amount of attention they bring [to the issue]. I just want to make people care,” she added. “That was the intention: trying not to lean too hard on and just tell the story, but if I could make a few more people care, that was something worth getting up for in the morning.”
Grant believes in the power of television and film beyond the ability to simply entertain. “Like any kind of art, [television and film] reflect back human experience to the viewers and give you a way to process what you might be experiencing and ultimately feel a little less alone,” she said. “There’s a commonality you can experience in the storytelling medium … I think when I was growing up and completely affected by and semi-addicted to movies, it was because they would both show me a world beyond what I was able to see and at the same time validate my own experience … The movies that rocked me when I was a kid, I felt seen by them and I felt like I was seeing more than I saw in my day-to-day life.”
A major aspect of “Unbelievable” that separates it from a typical crime show is the lack of information about the perpetrator. We witness the various clues and pieces of evidence that lead Duvall and Rasmussen, but we never learn his backstory or much about his personal information, unlike in the original news story.
Despite this absence of information, the show does not feel lacking in any way. We each felt incredibly close to the characters throughout the show, because we only ever know as much as they do.
Detective Parker is no quintessential villain either. Grant emphasized the importance of capturing particular nuances of his character: “He told Ken Armstrong [the ProPublica reporter] that the day you found out he was wrong was the worst day of his life. I thought, ‘okay, I understand this person.’ He’s a person who did a very bad thing because of both his combination of personal training and the cultural information we have about this issue, or misinformation I should say, that led him to this place that it leads a lot of people to. A simple villain who just doesn’t give a shit about women is boring to me.”
“I thought if I could build character and have the audience say, wow … I can see myself making all those choices and assumptions, that might get us closer to looking at the actual problem of how we perceive sexual assault and huge mistakes we make as a culture,” she added.
“Unbelievable” captures these nuances with tremendous success, and we are reminded of our own vulnerability to being wrong. Through making these characters more real and relatable to us, we are able to care more and as a result, correct our own attitudes toward rape culture. Because “Unbelievable” is not just another typical crime show, it sheds light on the stories that most need to be heard, the ones that go unseen and the ones that today’s criminal justice system does not make space for.
Through creating these complex and dynamic “textures” with the show’s various characters and relationships, Grant’s “Unbelievable” enables us to recognize our own culpability in rape culture and feel the traumatic, disorienting and untranslatable effects of rape — pushing us to refuse the traditional surface-level portrayals of “the typical victim” in sexual assault cases.