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Is the original Curious Case of Natalia Grace worth your time?

Is the original Curious Case of Natalia Grace worth your time?
The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks is season 2; season 1 told the story of her adoption and the subsequent court case

ID just aired The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks, the second season of The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, which ended with a DNA test confirming that Natalia is in her 20s, and thus was adopted as a child—not an adult—by her parents.

Sarah D. Bunting and Eve Batey’s true-crime review newsletter, Best Evidence, has been following the case since before it was a documentary TV show, and in this piece from Best Evidence, Eve looks at the ID original, which is streaming on Max along with season two. Join them in the comments to discuss!

Is The Curious Case of Natalia Grace worth your time? 

The short answer is sort of, as the case remains engrossing and enjoyably twisty, but the (far too long) show gets bogged down in repetitive details.

Best Evidence first picked up on the case in 2019. That’s when a paper in Lafayette, Indiana, published a solid explainer headlined “Did Michael, Kristine Barnett change Natalia Grace’s age and abandon her? Here’s what we know.”

It’s the kind of servicey packaging smart publications do when a local case starts to gain national footing, as this one began to when Michael and Kristine Barnett were charged with child neglect for — as officials said at the time — abandoning their reportedly underaged daughter in an apartment and leaving the country, all the while claiming she was actually an adult with a growth disorder adopted from Ukraine under false records.

We followed the case since, and I even held my nose and set my DVR for the Dr. Phil episode featuring the Barnetts’ adopted daughter — named Natalia Grace — that aired in 2019.

A person using a wheelchair gestures while speaking
Natalia Grace in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace season 2, which is subtitled “Natalia Speaks”

Let’s be clear what we’re dealing with when we talk about The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: press releases make no mention of the folks behind the camera, making it obvious that this is house brand stuff, not prestige-level true crime content.

It’s intended to be serviceable, journeyman fare, an aughts-era Honda Civic of a docuseries, able to get you across town on time, but without any razzle-dazzle.

I say all this to appropriately set expectations, because many viewers might just stumble on this on HBO’s Max streaming service, where it’s currently offered up in splashy fashion, see it’s six full episodes long, and think it’s an HBO-level series. It isn’t!

But after watching the first four episodes (two were provided to critics and two more aired Tuesday night), I’m worried that that Honda might not get me across town after all. And there’s not much excuse for that, as even in the first episode we see that this production has been at work gathering interviews since 2019.

This isn’t a rush job, and they had time to get things right — the only piece of the puzzle that was remaining, the legal disposition of the case against the Barnetts, wrapped up in March.

A person sitting on a cushion talks
The Curious Case of Natalia Grace season 2, “Natalia Speaks,” gave Natalia the chance to tell her own story

Part of the problem with TCCoNG is the same issue we’ve discussed again and again when we’ve talked about contemporary true-crime docuseries.

The pacing, padding, and level of redundancy is freshman comp-level material, with inconsequential points hammered home in multiple interviews that use almost the same language throughout.

Here’s an example: after an Indiana judge — at the Barnett’s request — “re-aged” Natalia Grace from her recorded age of (at the time) 8 to 22, they placed her in an apartment near their home in the just-north-of-Indianapolis town of Westfield.

Natalia, who was either a child or an adult with mental health issues, was jobless and without friends or social connections, and, guess what? She glommed on to her neighbors, calling, texting, and waiting on the doorstep of anyone who offered her attention or kindness.

This seems fairly predictable, given that she’s either a child or an unwell adult, one with literally nothing to do and no one to talk to all day long, right?

And yet, the series devotes a full episode to interviews with those neighbors, all of whom say in various ways that she was an annoying pest they felt awkward about blowing off given her clear neediness and disability.

It’s a note in the story that could have been more than adequately covered in five minutes, but we get the full 42…and meanwhile, the most incendiary claim, that she just might have attempted to molest a neighboring child, is given only a passing mention, then blown past.

Another significant problem seems to be the decision to pass on linear storytelling for something more “shocking plot twist”-y.

I get the impulse, sure, but given the absolute tidal wave of small details we’re fed in each episode, those twists feel less epic than perhaps intended.

Michael Barnett, who provides the lion’s share of talking heads in the four episodes I viewed, is revealed to be an unreliable narrator well after the first episode (though, y’all, if you listened to this guy speak and didn’t get a bit of the icks, you’re a sweet summer rose and please stay that way forever); other incidents presented as indictments of Natalia as a dangerous and possibly murderous person are debunked an episode or longer after they’re presented.

That’s a critical miscalculation by the show’s creators, both from a storytelling perspective and when it comes to journalistic rigor.

By opting against giving full context to each incident when it’s recounted, you’re shortchanging a possibly inattentive audience, and you’re also just making the series less interesting! Hit us with the inconsistencies in the moment; don’t wait for an hour then say “hey, remember that thing from last time? Guess what, it might be bullshit!”

Is TCCoNG the worst way to spend, say, a Saturday afternoon when you just want to veg out, second-screen, or knit?

Not at all — actually, it’s kind of perfect for that, as the redundancy and padding means you won’t be missing much.

But it’s definitely not the best way to gain a full and intelligent understanding of the case.

For that, we’ll have to wait for a high-quality podcast, a well-written true crime book, or a better documentary effort to accomplish that goal. But this Honda has the engine of a Geo Metro, and just ain’t it.

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Melissa

Thursday 4th of January 2024

Thank you for this! I am obsessed with this story. I watched the original, and while interesting, I agree that it's redundant and poorly told. Also agree about Michael being completely and totally icky. If I ever saw him in public, I'd be super tempted to kick him in the nuts.

I don't understand why no one will talk about the re-aging. Is is a legal issue? Because that is the most henious thing to me, especially since I'm sure that's why Michael was acquitted.

I've been waiting since spring for Natalia Speaks, and it was pretty good, but again, redundant. Didn't think Michael could be more disgusting, but he was. I appreciated hearing Natalia's side of the story though. I can't believe they dropped that bombshell at the end! HOLY SHIT!!! Now I can't wait for the next chapter.

nancy

Friday 5th of January 2024

@Melissa, I agree. This was an entertaining series. Not sure why this reviewer only watched a little of it and chose to review it? That bombshell at the end was astonishing!!!!! Seems like she has an axe to grind with the network or something….it’s odd.