Review: The Curious Case of Natalia Grace
by Chelsea Isabella Clark-James
"The Curious Case of Natalia Grace" is a six-episode series by Investigation Discovery that can best be described as character-driven, True Crime reality TV. The story revolves around the adoption of an orphaned Ukrainian girl with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia by an American family, the chaos of integrating her into the family, and the eventual arrest of the adoptive parents for neglect.
Beyond these facts, the series delves into a murky territory where interpretations and uncertainties dominate, particularly concerning the age of the adopted child. The series unfolds chronologically, with the adoptive father providing a colorful narrative of the early days. By the second episode, the narrative delves into sinister possibilities and dark mysteries. The rest of the docuseries toys with two questions: was Natalia an unfortunate orphan who fell into the clutches of twisted Americans, or were the Barnetts a naive and loving family terrorized by a conniving opportunist?
These two possibilities are endlessly debated but never satisfactorily resolved, giving the series a vaudevillian flare. In particular, we never hear from key individuals involved, the adoptive mother and Natalia among them. The adoptive father however readily grants multiple interviews over the years, which ultimately paint him in an unflattering light. Of the sibling in the family, only the oldest provides an interview but it feels orchestrated, marked by editorial decisions clearly aimed at influencing the narrative. Interviews with neighbors, advocates, and experts are interwoven with reenactments but provide more hearsay than hard facts.
The overall pacing and editing of the series seem to prioritize emotive impact over intellectual depth. Viewers who attempt to binge-watch the series might find themselves frequently fast-forwarding through repetitive footage.
The series release coincides with the trial of the adoptive father and the subsequent dismissal of the adoptive mother's trial. The content is timely but so is the form: the series premieres at the beginning of a Hollywood writer's strike. It's worth noting that reality TV emerged as a result of the last writer's strike. Since then, reality programming of all types has flooded our screens, and the True Crime market has proven particularly successful.
“The Curious Case of Natalia Grace” stands as a highly evolved form of "ripped from the headlines" reality TV entertainment. For avid followers of the genre, this series will hold your interest and leave you wondering about what happened. For the discerning audience, this series raises more questions about the producers' intentions than about the experience of the subjects themselves.
All six episodes can be found on Discovery+.