[This fall I watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, one of the most compelling and important TV shows I’ve seen in a good while. The show opens up a number of AmericanStudies conversations, so this week I’ll highlight and analyze a handful of them, trying my best to avoid SPOILERS (but probably not entirely succeeding). Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on the TV recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—share yours in comments, please!]
On two stages to how the story behind Unbelievable was uncovered and told, and how the show relates to and builds upon them.
According to the interview with creator Susannah Grant and executive producer Sarah Timberman that begins this video (after the trailer for the show), their idea for Unbelievable began when they read “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a December 2015 journalistic piece and triumph of investigative reporting by ProPublica reporter T. Christian Miller and Marshall Project reporter Ken Armstrong. ProPublica and the Marshall Project represent two sterling examples of the online, deep-dive investigative reporting and long-form journalism that has thrived over the last couple decades, and “An Unbelievable Story” was a striking case in point: both Miller and Armstrong investigated Marie Adler’s story over many months in 2015, as part of even longer-term investigations into rape and the justice system from initially distinct angles, before finding each other and collaborating on the final push for the investigation and then their co-authored, acclaimed and influential piece. Great journalism that both investigates injustice and pushes for justice is of course a deeply ingrained American tradition, but sites and reporters like these have brought that legacy into the 21st century, and we owe them a great debt for exploring Marie Adler’s story with the depth and power they did.
Miller and Armstrong eventually expanded their article into a book, 2018’s A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. But just a few months after the article’s first publication, it was adapted into another, even more fully 21st century journalistic genre, the podcast: This American Life’s February 26, 2016 program “Anatomy of Doubt” explores the article and the case, with Armstrong joining host Ira Glass alongside other figures from Marie’s life and world (including Marie herself and two of her many foster parents). Podcasts and radio programs have different potential audiences and effects, and so can in those ways be seen as complementary to online (or hard-copy) written journalism. But the truly multi-vocal aspect of podcasts more fully distinguishes the genre from any form of writing, even a co-authored piece like “An Unbelievable Story.” That is, of course Miller and Armstrong interviewed countless figures and included their voices and perspectives in their article—but hearing directly from someone like Marie Adler in the podcast, hearing her voice communicate her experiences and perspective, is nonetheless quite different and (it seems to me) an important step toward portraying Marie (performed by an actor and in a dramatic way to be sure) on screen in a series like Unbelievable.
“Performed by an actor and in a dramatic way” is of course a very complex parenthetical, especially for a show that defines itself (in the standalone final sentence of its Netflix description) as “Inspired by true events.” From everything I’ve seen (including in reading much further into and about the original article for this post), the show does justice to those true events, which is of course a hugely important thing to say about a show with a central theme of how much injustice is done by and to rape victims. But of course it’s also the case that the article is still available to be read (at the hyperlink above), just as the podcast is still available to be listened to (ditto), and that’s just as important a potential effect of the show: that as a Netflix original, and one with a significant amount of buzz, it can push audiences to engage further with this story and others like it, including through finding those prior versions as well as (ideally, but certainly possibly) researching themes of rape and sexual assault, policing and the justice system, women’s experiences in America, and more. If that can happen, Unbelievable would be not just inspired by our 21st century world, but inspiring in its effects on it.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: thoughts on this post and show? Other TV shows you’d recommend and analyze?
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