First, let’s toast to Netflix’s impeccable timing. It’s hard to imagine a better moment when the platform could have released Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s series Making a Murderer. Its target audience of socially conscious liberals with the kind of disposable income that can fund a Netflix subscription and the devices to use it with is, at this point, fed up with the mishandling of power by the police (generally in the form of racism, though Murderer is entirely about whites). Capping a year when Serial and The Jinx were the talk of the internet, Murderer is as familiar and definitive as every single end of year Top 10 list attempts to be.
It debuted December 18, a week before Christmas. In my case, this meant hearing and reading chatter about it for a few days before having enough free time—mostly in the form of the three-day Christmas weekend—to dive into Ricciardi and Demos’s deep inquiry into the strange case(s) of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was accused of rape and sentenced to jail in 1985, served 18 years, only to be exonerated, only to be convicted again. For 10 hours, I held this show in my hand, mostly watching it on my iPad. Since at least The Sopranos, narrative television has been compared to the novel, but I’ve never felt more like I was watching a book than when gulping down Making a Murderer. I didn’t binge as much as I was spoon-fed.
[Beware. Spoilers below.]
Depending on how you look at it, Making a Murderer is a docu-series or a 10-hour documentary. It’s also a reality show. Though part of the meticulously detailed, calculated-to-drop-jaws true crime pop-cultural zeitgeist, what Making a Murderer reminded me the most of was the O.J. Simpson trial. Given how much of it takes place in the courtroom and how immense Murderer feels (Ricciardi and Demos squeezed 700 hours of footage into 10, but you’d swear you watched at least 100 when the final credits roll), the comparison is obvious. But lest we be seduced by the allure of prestige TV, lest we be blinded by the status that the most think-pieced and tweeted show of the moment is afforded, I think that O.J. comparison also gives us perspective. In an essay for Vanity Fair last year that commemorated the 20th anniversary of that must-see Bronco chase, Lili Anolik wrote:
What made the case such an addictive fix—beyond even the sensational nature of the crime, the glitziness of the players, the almost irresistible pull of the question What really happened?—was the voyeuristic kink it provided. It gave us the dirty little thrill of putting our eye to the keyhole, looking in on a world that we’d normally never have access to.
Virtually the same could be said for the trials of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, except our gaze here is turned to a car-salvage yard run by poor people in Wisconsin, as opposed to an affluent community inhabited by celebrities in Los Angeles. The snapshot of Manitowoc County culture that Making a Murderer provides is reminiscent of the rural/lower class pop culture that had its moment a few years ago—Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, Winter’s Bone, and the like. Murderer’s aesthetics are as indelible as any consciously fashion-forward programming—the trailer’s wood paneling, the fried-out hair, the convertible jeans with visible seams where the legs zip off to make shorts. (If I see a Williamsburg hipster rocking the Ski-Doo jacket worn by Avery’s ex Jodi, I won’t know whether to scream or salute.) Here, though, economic status isn’t the punchline or merely the definitive trait that makes this group of people worthy of attention; it’s crucial context for Avery’s inability to navigate the justice system that he contends affords him no actual justice. “Poor people lose...poor people lose all the time,” we hear him say early on.
On Murderer, there’s more at stake than on your average reality show (the principles here aren’t fighting for the love of a man, for example, but for their lives), but the human behavior is often just as extreme. “I hate you for what you did to my kid, so you can rot in hell,” says Barb Janda, the mother of Brendan Dassey and sister of Steven Avery, right into a news camera at one point. She exhibits the kind of full-body scene-stealing that would make her a gif-able, breakout star...if she weren’t reacting to her son with learning disabilities being convicted of a crime he was coerced to confess to. When at last Dassey is found guilty, Janda storms from the courtroom and loses it outside, kicking and flailing and ranting in frustration. News cameras capture her display until her partner Scott Tadych tells them to back off. Most of them do immediately. It’s quite a contrast from the dispassionate, fixed gaze we’ve come to expect from reality TV cameras.
As on reality TV, we watch humans being molded into characters. Here, Avery and Dassey are made out to be the unsavory, possibly murderous ones by the system. While this is usually an implicit process on reality TV, on Murderer we watch the assembling take place before our eyes in explicit detail. We see investigators essentially shaping Dassey’s story by bombarding him with leading questions, and the poor confused kid finally tells them what they want to hear because, from what I can tell, he seems like a gentle person who just wants to get along with whoever is in front of him. With allegedly planted evidence as part of a larger conspiracy to wipe Steven Avery from free society once and for all, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office may have performed a similar character-reassembly on Steven Avery. Or, as one of his lawyers muses at one point, the 18 years he spent in jail for a crime he didn’t certainly didn’t commit changed him and made him into a person capable of murdering Teresa Halbach and burning her body. Either way, the system is responsible; the difference is how detectable its machinations are.
At any rate, Making a Murderer takes that reality show convention of funneling a person’s humanity into a digestible narrative, and exposes how devastating it can be when that convention is divorced from the low-stakes fame whoring of reality television and applied to a criminal justice system that can be exploited—both in the courtroom and in press conferences—via a well-constructed story. You don’t get to write your own obituary; your worth as a human is ultimately determined by other people, be they jurors, the general public, or a potentially corrupt police force. Making a Murderer documents this sad truth in sometimes excruciating detail.
Again and again, Making a Murderer smacks of familiarity. It functions like so much of what led up to it, yet it’s more tastefully arranged, something for those who care about high/low culture divides to feel less guilty about enjoying. And yet, for a story that materialized when a 25-year-old woman was murdered and burned, it is quite enjoyable. I found it hard, sometimes, to properly balance my compassion between the Avery family and the Halbach family—the apparent miscarriage of justice toward the former felt so much more outrageous to behold than the somewhat conventional tragedy of the latter. We’ve heard Teresa Halbach’s story before; we haven’t really heard Steven Avery’s, and what makes it that much less ignorable is it comes with the idea that this sort of corruption is everywhere. We should have heard it before now.
In terms of fostering compassion for the dead, Halbach family spokesperson Mike (Teresa’s brother) doesn’t help things at all by creepily grinning when discussing his sister’s murder trial, and by blindly investing faith in the police (“We love the police!” he gushes at one point). Did he need closure so much that he refused to see the defense’s reasonable suggestion that his sister’s actual murderer might still be somewhere on the loose or did he need to show solidarity with the police, for some other reason? (Some Reddit obsessives speculate that Mike Halbach should have been a suspect.)
At the point when I realized that I had far less emotional connection to the Halbachs than then Averys, I watched a journalist ask Mike Halbach this question during a news conference: “Theoretically a trial is supposed to be about the day your sister died and how she died and who did it, yet it seems as though the state is spending an inordinate amount of time, especially with law enforcement officers not talking about that, but who had access to what: to what scene, to what vehicle. Are you concerned that with each witness, this window of reasonable doubt keeps getting wider and wider?” It’s like the show was reading my mind. The construction is impeccable.
I could speculate and ask questions all day. All of us who watched it could—this piece, from a Wisconsin resident who before the show was convinced of Avery’s and Dassey’s guilt, contains almost 60 questions struck by the series that demand answers. Making a Murderer is that engaging, and that’s really all a show —especially one packaged for binge-watching—needs to be.
And yet, it feels like more. The show has notes of trash, but Ricciardi and Demos are armed with air-freshening social justice. “The main question at the heart of the series is how do we as a society respond when injustice is exposed?” said Ricciardi in a Vulture interview. In addition to being the main question, it’s a good one. What do we do? We tweet, we maybe read the change.org petition titled “Free Steven Avery,” we possibly sign that petition, we leave scathing reviews on prosecutor Ken Kratz’s Yelp page, we do some research on Reddit, we continue to discuss the unanswered questions. We stay on our asses, depressed this time by the lengths others will go to ruin a man’s reputation, as opposed to the lengths he’ll go to be on TV (and ruin his reputation in the process).
I’m heartened that our reality programming is exposing flaws in our justice system and sowing seeds of compassion. I’m thrilled that something as ultimately open-ended as this show is still so seemingly satisfying to so many people. As we trudge toward the promise of the truth, amassing tweets and e-signatures and righteous outrage, it seems like things might be getting better insofar as we understand the extent of how bad things are. Enlightenment penetrates that bubble of the upwardly mobile, and at the very least, we feel better knowing even if little is tangibly better. Maybe it’s just pop culture that’s getting more sophisticated, representative, and compassionate. In the end, for the vast majority of its audience, Making a Murderer is only a show, but that’s better than nothing.