The Rise of True Crime TV and the Emotional Resonance of ‘Making a Murderer’
Did you spend most of the holidays screaming at your television and engaging in debates over Netflix's Making a Murderer? Was your morning commute last winter accompanied by the voice of Serial narrator Sarah Koenig? Did you totally lose your s--- during The Jinx finale? Welcome, fellow true crime TV addict, you are not alone.
It'd be stating the obvious to say true crime programing is having a moment. This American Life's Serial quickly became the most downloaded podcast of all time last year, officially bringing the medium into the mainstream. The first season's investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee gave rise to obsessives pouring over every detail as it became a major part of pop culture, something no one anticipated. While the second season of the podcast, about U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, has proven less engaging and buzzworthy, the true-crime genre has only surged. Netflix jumped on the trend, satisfying our craving for infuriating injustice and mysterious homicides with Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos' Making a Murderer. The show debuted right before the holidays, an ideal time to binge-watch and get hooked on a new show. The 10-episodes follow the real-life story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongly imprisoned for 18 years for a sexual assault he didn't commit, then soon after tried for the unrelated murder of a photographer. If you haven't finished the docu-series yet, it's probably best to stop reading now to avoid spoilers.
So here's what we know: In 2007, Avery was found guilty of murdering Teresa Halbach, a photographer for Auto Trader magazine who went missing on October 31, 2005, the day she was scheduled to meet with Avery at his salvage yard. Avery's nephew Brendan Dassey, who was 16 years old at the time of the events, was later found guilty on three counts, one for being a party to the first-degree murder. But what we don't know, and there's a lot of it, is precisely what's helped turn Making a Murderer into one of the most talked about topics of the past several weeks. The evidence presented at Avery's trial was highly questionable, and their theory behind how the murder went down remains murky, which led Avery's defense team to suggest the Manitowoc County Police Department framed Avery for the murder.
While watching in the series you probably found yourself constantly questioning and enraged at everything, swaying back and fourth on suspicions of guilt and innocence. There's no way that RAV-4 key wasn't planted in Avery's trailer, right? The blood vial was definitely tinkered with, wasn't it? And there's definitely something fishy about those EDTA tests. After sorting through the evidence there's the question of what actually happened, if we are to believe Avery was framed. Did the police actually put Halbach's body in a barrel and burn her? If not, who did? How much did Dassey make up to please the officers and how much did he actually witness? And the questions we may not want to ask after spending 10 hours feeling pretty bad for this family: did Avery do it, and was Brendan at least partially involved?
The beauty of a show like this is how it opens itself up to so many opinions. That's particularly why Making a Murderer and Serial have become cultural phenomenons: they're open invitations to get involved and become more than viewers. It's hard, if not nearly impossible, to be a passive audience member while binge-watching or binge-listening to either. Good luck trying to avoid spoilers about the Netflix show from here on out and since Murderer tracks events that have already happened, most sites aren't following the usual spoiler-alert protocol. And it's not just critics and journalists talking about the show, its friends and family on your Facebook feed bragging about what episodes they're on, colleagues emitting outrage at the justice system and Len Kachinsky's grating smiling on Twitter.
Making a Murderer isn't just a Netflix series, it's become a cultural event. True crime shows are clearly building toward a peak moment in pop culture, especially with Investigation Discovery's slate of shows and Discovery's The Killing Fields, a new six-episode docu-series that follows an active murder investigation in Louisiana. Next up is Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story anthology which will detail the O.J. Simpson murder trial in February. But Making a Murder points to a new development in the genre, and one that's likely responsible for the series' popularity. Netflix has managed to take the thrilling substance of a real-life crime case and apply it to their binge-watching model, a new era of television watching that elongates a show's life beyond its premiere date. Making a Murderer fuses the tension of watching a criminal trial unfold on live TV with the excitement of binge-watching culture.
Usually we race to get through a series to catch up with the rest of the world, keep up with water cooler conversations and avoid spoilers. But this isn't like plowing through Orange Is the New Black or Daredevil in a weekend. I know many people who finished Ricciardi and Demos' series in two days to find out what happened. The bizarre thing is, the plot of Making a Murderer is something you can simply read about on Wikipedia, so why devote 10 precious hours to something of the past? Is it because the show is so good? I'd argue against that, since the repetitive aerial and establishing shots and many tiresome courtroom scenes made the middle section far less compelling. With some generous editing, the show could've easily been cut down to six or seven episodes. Is it because the story itself is so crazy — the possibility of a man wrongly convicted twice and unrightfully imprisoned for more than half his life? Maybe. But my belief is the content that sticks with us most is the content that grips us the most personally.
The thing that's allowed Making a Murderer to become so engrossing and last so long in our cultural consciousness and online debates (a solid three weeks at this point, which is huge for a show of this nature), is how much it has emotionally affected audiences. Beyond shouting at the TV in a rage, viewers are investigating the crime and trials themselves. Dedicated redditors and fans have analyzed and gathered all the evidence left out of the show, collected attorney interviews and shared theories on other possible suspects. One redditior even made a very comprehensive breakdown of the costs and means to obtaining the case files and trial transcripts from the Manitowoc County Courthouse, with others jumping on board to crowdfund and assist in the effort. Could the internet actually help Avery get pardoned? Never before have I seen a television show incite such an immediate effect on audiences, especially a show without an already dedicated fan base. This isn't just trading Jon Snow theories at happy hour, this is ongoing debates about the possible wrongful conviction of two men, of real people. Perhaps we're willing to invest more emotional weight in the lives of these Wisconsin folk, people we'll never meet but feel more relatable than fictional characters.
As much as audiences have tried to figure out how exactly the crime happened, Making a Murderer isn't just about figuring out whether or not Avery did it. The series is more about whether he truly got a fair trial, innocent or guilty. Serial and The Jinx both offered a more distanced approach to the cases and suspects at their center through an impartial narrator or investigator. While this series has a clear focus on the defense's case (and a seeming agenda to Avery's innocence), Making a Murderer is more of a critical look at the justice system as a whole. Instead of fighting for a person, the show rouses vexation at a larger system, one that could just as easily effect any of us and take away our freedoms. In that way, Netflix's series has become more personal, leading us to question our court system and asking us to be a part of the story in a larger way. And so far, it's working. The show has already generated multiple petitions to pardon Avery and Dassey with a White House petition already surpassing 120,000 signatures and growing.
As much as the series is a call to action, its biggest strength comes in catharsis. Watching the series is no doubt an impassioned experience, one that's as depressing as it is shocking. As I was watching the series over the holidays I kept asking myself why I've always subjected myself to upsetting crime shows, and particularly why I cannot stop watching them. As a professed Law & Order: SVU fanatic who's seen every episode (okay, I missed a couple this season), I've spent ridiculous amounts of time devouring gruesome, disturbing crime stories. But it's not exactly fun to watch stories of rape victims and killers. So why do I, along with so many others do it?
Once I finished Making a Murderer I started to realize how emotionally stimulating it all was; the outrage at the prosecution's closing statements, and the sadness at seeing the emptiness on Dassey's face, a boy much mentally younger than his age not fully realizing what he's gotten himself into. Much like watching SVU, listening to Serial, watching The Thin Blue Line or reading In Cold Blood, Making a Murderer is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment that tugs at our desires for justice. All of those attempt to understand the darkest corners of the human psyche and the evils and unjust acts people are capable of. We put ourselves through the hellish experience of watching those stories, maybe with some shouting, some tears, some fiery anger and some terror for our our safety. But its the glimmer of hope that the right justice will be brought at the end of it. You can't not finish an SVU episode and miss the jury's verdict, just as you can't finish Making a Murderer without feeling like something, whatever it was, wasn't right in those trials. Netflix has managed to strike a very deep chord with audiences in a way unlike any crime series before it. The worst part is, as much as we want to right wrongs and solve mysteries, there's not always something we can do. But at least we're fervently absorbed in something real and important, whether or not it ends the way we'd hope.