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Capitol Hill Screening of Netflix Series 'Unbelievable' Part of Push to Reauthorize Rape Kit Backlog Law

"What a difference it makes when a woman who says she's been assaulted is not only heard, but treated with compassion."

Merritt Wever (left) and Toni Collette play detectives investigating several rape cases in the Denver area in the Netflix miniseries "Unbelievable." (Image: Netflix)

Advocates for sexual assault survivors hope a screening and discussion of a critically-acclaimed new Netflix series will help put pressure on federal lawmakers to renew legislation requiring thorough investigations into rape cases.

Producers of the eight-part miniseries "Unbelievable" joined with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and CBS Studios to bring the series to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

"A phrase one hears often is that the investigation of a sexual assault can feel like a second assault. I wanted to really unpack that and pull that out of what has come to feel a little bit like a phrase that's lost its impact and its meaning, and bring it into a really emotional experience for a viewer."
—Susannah Grant, "Unbelievable" producer
The show is based on a true story which was the focus of a Pulitzer Prize-winning report by the Marshall Project and ProPublica in 2015. The series juxtaposes the experience of a young woman (played by Kaitlyn Dever) after surviving a sexual assault—in which police call her account into question—with the story of two detectives (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) whose compassionate, thoughtful, and thorough examination of a serial rape case offers what one critic called a "radical" true crime story.

"'Unbelievable' is concerned with the victims of that rapist, how they are treated by an inconsistent criminal justice system, and what a difference it makes when a woman who says she's been assaulted is not only heard, but treated with compassion," wrote Jen Chaney at New York magazine. "This should not qualify as a radical approach to crime storytelling. But it indeed feels radical."

Several lawmakers will screen the series at the Hart Senate Office Building in the days before the Debbie Smith Act of 2004 expires. The law provides funding for crime labs to process rape kits and other DNA evidence and requires states to cut down on their rape kit backlogs. Tens of thousands of rape kits have been untested by U.S. police departments.

RAINN's policy team joined Dever and executive producers Susannah Grant and Sarah Timberman on Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where they met with lawmakers including Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) to urge them to reauthorize the Debbie Smith Act.

Watching "Unbelievable," Grant told reporters Wednesday, "You go through the process with a young woman who has just experienced a sexual assault." 

"A phrase one hears often is that the investigation of a sexual assault can feel like a second assault," said Grant. "I wanted to really unpack that and pull that out of what has come to feel a little bit like a phrase that's lost its impact and its meaning, and bring it into a really emotional experience for a viewer—so we show it in detail."

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In addition to praise from critics, the series has won applause from journalists and political observers on social media, some of whom said "Unbelievable" could have the capacity to change how police departments and others treat survivors of sexual assault.

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