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“Right now, murder is hot,” declares a Dateline producer nearly four hours into Netflix’s new crime docuseries, Making a Murderer. “That’s what everyone wants. That’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.”
That quote came from nearly a decade ago, but murder, once again, is hot, and the key to finding the next Serial or The Jinx is latching onto that perfect murder story.
Air date: Dec 18, 2015
Making a Murderer is Netflix’s very worthy entry into what is an increasingly burgeoning genre, the next evolutionary steps from In Cold Blood, The Staircase and the Paradise Lost trilogy. The case at the center of Making a Murderer probably isn’t actually perfect, but it’s close enough, with filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos taking a slow-burn approach over 10 hourlong episodes. After one episode, I was curious. After two episodes, I was concerned. After three episodes, I was angry. And now, having seen four episodes, there’s a fair amount of champing at the bit for the release of the full series on Friday (Dec. 18) because even though the results of the story could probably be spoiled by 15 minutes of online research, this tale is designed to be binged.
The story begins in September 2003 as Steven Avery is released from a Wisconsin prison, exonerated by DNA evidence 18 years after he was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder. An aggressively bearded man with an IQ under 75 and a history of minor, foolish criminal activity, Avery may have been railroaded by bitter relatives, a colluding police department and his family’s history of isolation from the community. Or maybe he was just the victim of sloppy but innocuous police work. Avery is determined to get his life back together, but he’s also a convenient poster boy for advocates for judicial reform, and he stands to get restitution for his lost years. But then Avery is charged with a far worse crime, and every question of guilt, innocence, corruption and justice is raised again at a louder volume.
When approaching a long-form true-crime saga, it helps if you have a main character who is simultaneously morally ambiguous and easy to pigeonhole. Whether he did it or not, whether we believe his side of the story or not, there’s something compulsively watchable about Robert Durst’s lizardlike venality or Adnan Syed’s cow-eyed sincerity. They fit with fictional archetypes like Daniel Holden of Rectify or Walter White of Breaking Bad. They’re antiheroes, and TV viewers know what to do with antiheroes.
Avery is not that kind of character. He’s not articulate or charismatic or compelling, nor do Ricciardi and Demos have the sort of access that would build a character study of Avery, even if he were introspective enough to open up in that way. The genre has trained us to invest in stories like this on a one-on-one personal level. If we don’t have a hero or villain at the center, we at least need a sympathetic grieving widow or crusading parents. Making a Murderer doesn’t have that kind of hook, and while that’s frustrating for a few minutes, it’s also ultimately differentiating, evoking universal empathy for the wronged, rather than specific sentimentality.
Ricciardi and Demos are not crusaders themselves. They aren’t Sarah Koenig trying to get a new trial or Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky throwing out alternate suspects willy-nilly or Andrew Jarecki playing cat and mouse with a cagey millionaire. They aren’t characters in Making a Murderer because they’re too busy documenting it. Ricciardi and Demos were drawn into the events in Manitowoc County when the 2005 case was beginning, and they’ve assembled an impressive assortment of materials including public records like news reports and filmed press conferences, but they also have culled courtroom and interrogation-room footage and prison phone calls that must have required at least some wrangling. There are also a number of exclusive interviews with members of the Avery family, though if those exclusive interviews expand to become less one-sided, that happens after the fourth episode. There are probably very good reasons why Making a Murderer is short on candor from authority figures and several players impacted most by the alleged crimes.
The sheer length of Making a Murderer hints at the complicated editing process. Episodes build to key revelations or legal turning points, and they sometimes exceed the standard hour boundaries, and, as propulsive as episodes are, they feel substantive, but also still trimmable. The series has an urgency, but in that urgency, there’s also an occasional sloppiness. Gruff, reticent lawyers and law-enforcement figures blend together with a fuzzy sense of who reports to whom or who represented whom and when. It’s sometimes hard to tell which interviews are exclusive or when they were conducted. Generally, the passing of time is hard to chart, which you can tell the directors felt as well, since they resort to title cards, timelines, chyrons announcing dates and even month-by-month montages of overhead shots and still can’t always keep things straight.
Read More: ‘Killing Fields’: TV Review
As with Avery’s inscrutability, the sloppiness is an occasional frustration, but it’s also an asset to Making a Murderer. The Jinx was edited with a cocky polish because they knew what they were building toward. Serial‘s unevenness reflects Koenig’s shifting loyalties. And if Making a Murderer sometimes becomes a perplexing bedlam, it’s mirroring a case that has ripples across three decades, a case that splits several jurisdictions, a case that challenges how unfair the legal system can be to people with below-average financial resources and below-average intelligence. Sometimes Making a Murderer feels a little out of order, but as Al Pacino in …And Justice for All taught us, sometimes everything is out of order where truth is concerned.
With six episodes of Making a Murderer still to watch, I have my own opinions on Avery’s guilt or innocence, and I have my own list of dark-horse suspects, candidates the filmmakers haven’t even tried to implicate. But there already have been enough twists in the four hours I’ve seen to suggest that the story and the resolution may be something completely different from what I’m guessing, and it’ll be much more fun to watch the case unfold on Netflix than to Google it.
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