Unbelievable is an eight-episode mini series released on Netflix on September 13, 2019. It is Based on a True Story, being a dramatization of the 20082011 Washington and Colorado serial rape cases, but is especially inspired by a Pulitzer-winning article that journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong wrote about the case.
The series mostly takes place in two states and two timelines. In 2008, teenager Marie Adler's account of her brutal rape in Lynwood, Washington is met with skepticism by the police, who push her to recant her statement. Three years later, and completely unaware of the existence of Adler, detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen pursue a serial rapist across multiple jurisdictions in Colorado. The show bounces back and forth between the two timelines, exploring the devastating effects Marie's experience has had on her while Duvall and Rasmussen chase down leads on a series of rapes whose circumstances are eerily similar to Adler's.
This series provides examples of:
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Averted in a peculiar way: Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen are based on real Colorado detectives, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, but Stacy Galbraith, whose character is played by Merritt Wever, resembles Toni Collette, and Edna Hendershot, whose character is played by Toni Collette, resembles Merritt Wever.
- An Aesop: Believe victims.
- Chekhov's Gag: An in-universe one. Early on, Detective Duvall discovers that her husband Max, who's also a cop but in a different department, has been nicknamed 'Max the Knife' by his colleagues. She spends the entire series wondering where this nickname came from, only to find out at the end of season eight that it's because after a couple of drinks, he likes to sing Frank Sinatra songs in karaoke.
- Conviction by Contradiction: This, along with not acting in a way even other rape victims find usual, is what causes Marie to be disbelieved by the detectives on her case. She told her friend a minor detail differently (that was not even directly about her rape) and the detectives decide based solely on this that her entire account was made up, pressuring her into recanting (then sticking to it after Marie changes her mind). On top of all that, she's charged with false reporting, something which is noted to be very rare.
- Double Standard: Marie's civil lawyer laments this, noting that if someone reports they were carjacked or mugged, they aren't faced with the suspicion rape victims so often suffer.
- Enhance Button: The intern uses a program to enhance the video image of the license plate of the suspicious pickup Duvall noticed. Downplayed in that the enhanced image still isn't clear enough for them to read the plate.
- Everyone Has Standards: In return for them dropping the kidnapping charges, the rapist enters a guilty plea to the others. Duvall and Rasmussen are baffled as to why he objects at those specifically, but the DA rolls with it.
- False Rape Accusation: Marie is accused of making one by the detectives, on very slender grounds, though not against anyone specifically (as the rapist was masked and she didn't recognize him otherwise). They use this to intimidate her into recanting, then have her charged with false reporting. Only later do they learn everything she said was true.
- Gaslighting: An unintentional, but altogether just as damaging example. After being faced with a barrage of doubt from the police and her peers and even being more-or-less bullied into recanting her statement, Marie starts to question her own memory of the event to the point where it takes an additional toll on her mental health on top of the damage she suffered from the rape.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: In the aftermath of all that has happened, Marie works with an attorney who helps her threaten to sue the city of Lynwood for the way she was treated after reporting her rape. The lawyer is both skilled and ethical, and he expresses genuine outrage at Marie's treatment. Marie ends up getting $150,000 from the city — the lawyer makes clear they could get a lot more, but Marie just wants to be done with the whole thing, and he doesn't press the point.
- Good Victims, Bad Victims: Marie suffers a version of this, not only from the detectives but her foster mother, a fellow rape victim, who thinks her reaction was "off". This makes the detectives suspicious, and then a very minor inconsistency in her makes convinces the two Marie made it all up.
- Incriminating Indifference: Deconstructed. Marie's former foster-mother Judith suspects Marie of making a False Rape Accusation, because she doesn't see her showing any strong emotions after what happened, and her telling this to the police officers investigating Marie's case makes them come to the same conclusion. To the viewer, however, it is made quite clear that Marie's lack of reaction is because she is still in a state of shock and trauma after the rape, and is actually trying her hardest to avoid thinking about what happened. Her other foster mother Colleen points out this to Judith when they talk, noting that people react differently in individual cases.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Rasmussen interrogates a man she caught skulking around behind the scene of a rape. It turns out he has nothing to do with the crime and the only thing he's guilty of is an odd obsession with the placement of rocks on riverbeds. Rasmussen treats the man and his obvious impatience and frustration with total disgust (she even tells Duvall that he's an "asshole"), but it's hard not to understand why an innocent man would be so frustrated about being hauled into a police station and questioned over a crime he didn't commit.
- Longer-Than-Life Sentence: The rapist is sentenced to the maximum on each charge after pleading guilty. It comes out to over three hundred years, and thus he'll never be free again. Believe it or not, this sentence was actually incorrectly listed in the show, as his real life counterpart got an even harsher sentence, totaling over 450 years, with his earliest possibility for parole being set in December 2283.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Marie is not only bullied by the police into recanting her report of being raped, and being seen as a mentally unstable liar by the people around her as a result, she is also subjected to the further humiliation of being charged with filing a false report — something her public defender even notes is highly unusual for cases like this. Though said public defender is able to negotiate a (under the circumstances) favorable plea bargain with the prosecution — that means Marie faces probation, a fine, and an expungement of her record if she does not re-offend, instead of jail time and a permanent mark on her record — it still means that she is required to admit guilt and face official sanctions for a crime she didn't commit. She is first given redress when the rapist is caught and undeniable evidence that she was telling the truth all along surfaces in the process.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Detective Parker of the Lynwood Police is utterly devastated when he finds out that Marie's account was true and he pressured an actual rape victim to recant her story. He even tells Rasmussen that he's one of the "bad cops" and says "maybe we should get rid of me."
- Rape as Drama: The series starts by focusing on Marie Adler, who's raped by a masked man in her home. After her case is wrongly dismissed by the police, we learn that the rapist has attacked many other women as well. The effect of this upon her and the rapist's other victims is shown in great detail.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The series frames the rapist's actions as especially heinous, placing particular emphasis on his brutality and sadism. Part of Rasmussen's and Duvall's struggle is persuading other people that this is the case.
- Red Herring: James Massey, a Dirty Cop and a complete jerkass who spits in Rasmussen's face, but nevertheless not the rapist.
- Roman à Clef: Pretty much. Most names have been changed, but Marie keeps the pseudonym of her real life counterpart (Marie is her middle name — everything else was kept confidential for her privacy), and episode one in particular is exactly what happened to the real Marie. Later episodes contain more adaptation.
- Serial Rapist: The perpetrator of the attack on Marie is found to be one. He not only raped many other women in his home state, but there may well be others the police still haven't discovered even when he's convicted, as the encryption on his hard drive can't be cracked, where they suspect he kept far more photos of victims.
- The Shrink: Marie meets with one as part of her plea deal. She turns out to be an Awesome Shrink, as she manages to get Marie to open up in spite of her avowed desire not to say anything.
- The Stoic: Marie suffers disbelief for acting somewhat like this in the wake of her rape. This makes her foster mother and then the police suspicious, leading the latter to dismiss her accusation as entirely fabricated in the wake of a minor contradiction which Marie had in her story (that wasn't even directly related to the rape). As her other foster mother notes, people respond in different ways to trauma, and her manner is not uncommon.
- Trauma Conga Line: At the very beginning of episode one, Marie is raped. Then she has to gave a statement to the cop on the scene, the same morning. Then she has to give a statement to the detectives on the scene. Then she has to give a statement to the medical examiner. Then she has to give another statement to the same detectives, back at the station. Then she has to give a written version of the same statement — reliving the event over and over again, just because it's procedure. Then, the cops can't find any evidence so they become open to doubting the statement. Then, one of Marie's foster mothers casts doubt on her credibility without actually saying that she made it all up. The cops seize on this and question Marie, doubting her statement to her face, and they browbeat her into admitting that the statement isn't true. So she writes a new statement in which she says she dreamed it all and thought it was real. The cops aren't satisfied with this, so they make her rewrite her new statement, "admitting" that she made it all up, even though she didn't. They then close the case. Marie's support network abandons her, thinking that she's a lying fantasist who just wants attention. Then, the cops charge her with making a false statement. Justified in that this all really happened: see Roman à Clef above.
- Wham Line: "Did he have a backpack?" If Max, a cop at Westminster PD, hadn't said this to his wife, a detective at Golden PD, the two police departments might never have shared notes and realized that they were both investigating the same criminal. Justified, in that it's Duvall's realization that this is the rapist's MO—trusting that police departments in different districts won't communicate with each other—that puts her on the right track.