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Netflix already discovered earlier this year that sequels to true crime series are tough to get right. The original eight episodes of The Staircase is a classic of the genre, probably THE classic of the genre. The subsequent five, including three Netflix premiered, are barely fitfully engaging.
Probably the biggest, two-pronged problem is you can’t surprise audiences twice. It’s already hard to reignite outrage, and the people most inflamed by the initial story have probably followed it in the news and already know what twists are coming. The first time around, you have the 30,000-foot view of the story you want to tell and why. The second time, you’re prey to the vagaries of the legal system and the answer to “Why?” is just “Because the first one was successful.”
AIR DATE Oct 19, 2018
When it premiered in 2015, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’ Making a Murderer became one of Netflix’s true word-of-mouth sensations, an underpromoted late-December release that turned convicted murderers Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey into subjects of international sympathy and support. It was inevitable Netflix would order more, because Netflix rarely lets things stand on their own, even when common sense might dictate otherwise.
The second season of Making a Murderer premieres on Friday (October 19) and it’s a disappointment, but it’s a disappointment with a thoroughly reasonable excuse. The legal system, it turns out, is sometimes disappointing. Who knew? If the theme of the first season was the perpetrating of an injustice, with all of the attendant indignation, the theme of the second season is justice, in all of its thwarted and incomplete imperfection. The first season was, “Here’s a horrible thing that happened… Get mad!” and the second season is, “In lieu of magic bullets or smoking guns, here are the actual machinations required to set things right… Get impatient.”
The new Making a Murderer episodes pick up in the aftermath of the documentary’s release and most of the first episode is straight-up filler, celebrating the impact the series had without really refreshing your memory on the facts or the stakes other than that Steven Avery is in jail for a crime he says he didn’t commit on the basis of evidence that the series presented as faulty, and Brendan Dassey is in jail with no evidence against him other than a confession that sure seems coerced. You could skip at least the first half of the premiere and lose nothing, setting a pattern for a season that doesn’t need close to the 10 episodes allotted nor the hour-plus running time for nearly every episode. The first season was wonderfully arced, with each episode building to another stranger-than-fiction revelation, but no such elegance exists here, nor really do the surprises. That’s not Ricciardi and Demos’ fault. They filmed through Summer 2018 in hopes of giving the season a destination.
The reason you can’t skip the first episode entirely is that it introduces Kathleen Zellner, the crusading defense attorney who takes on Steven’s post-conviction appeal. At its very best, the second Making a Murderer season runs Zellner’s work on Steven’s case parallel to Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin’s work on Brendan’s case, illustrating (sometimes repetitively) the different requirements of each appeal and the different approaches of each legal team. The built-in question every viewer will probably ask is, “If — God forbid — I were ever in this situation, what would I look for in an advocate?”
Zellner is cocky and comfortable at the center of a media circus. She doesn’t just want to set Steven free, she wants to solve the mystery of Teresa Halbach’s murder. Her primary goal is assaulting the evidence that got Steven convicted, including a number of key details that detractors accused the series of ignoring in its first season. Zellner has a Sherlock Holmes streak, and she’s traveling the country recruiting expert analysts and attempting to reproduce and debunk the trial evidence. She’s doing ballistics tests, replicating blood spatter on the same RAV4 model Halbach drove pacing the grounds of the Avery auto lot and surrounding environments on various missions. She floats alternate suspects, proposes alternate theories and Tweets regularly about her progress. She’s all over the place.
In contrast, Nirider and Drizin and their team from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern are methodical and procedural. There’s no real evidence against Brendan, so their objective is the invalidating of his confession. Where Zellner is prone to broad pronouncements, trash talk and spinning a compelling story, Nirider and Drizen have their eyes set on ladder of appeals that, if necessarily, would go all the way to the Supreme Court. They’re bookish instead of sexy, rely on rehearsed mock trials instead of experimentation and they harp on AEDPA (The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996) instead accusations.
Perhaps sensing the season might be too clinical, the directors try to build a third, more emotional, subplot around Steven’s aging parents, Dolores and Allan, both ailing and worried that they may not be around when or if Steven ever gets out. It’s not the best part of the season, but it gives a sympathetic human face to this endeavor, much more so than the couple episodes that float arcs relating to Steven’s newfound status as a prison sex symbol and subject of inexplicable romantic fantasies.
You might think, “Couldn’t a human face be put on the tragedy by giving some time to the Halbach family?” Well, of course. One of the major complaints about the first season was that it “lacked both sides.” Again, each episode of this season ends with a list of people who declined or ignored requests to participate, a list that includes everybody with the last name Halbach and everybody tied to the state/prosecution cases. Fortunately, the first season’s hissable villain Ken Kratz has been such a persistent media gadfly that he’s provided the filmmakers with ongoing ammunition. Honestly, it makes more sense for this season to be “one-sided.” The first season focused on trials and law enforcement as an adversarial process, one in which both sides were participating. Most of what Steven and Brendan’s lawyers are doing here is working against existing verdicts, precedent and case law, not rival attorneys or suspects or witnesses. They’re checking off boxes in isolated desperation.
The first season of Making a Murderer knew what its overall story was and where it wanted to leave you, and executed those goals well. It had an imperative to where it began and ended. In that respect, the second season’s imperative might just be that Netflix didn’t want to wait a decade between seasons, so it had to pause for new episodes somewhere. It has a worthy “Now that you’ve gotten pissed off, what comes next?” agenda and I admire that it’s more driven by intellect than passion, while lamenting its lack of clear and smooth construction.
Premieres Friday, October 19 on Netflix.
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