Late 2014 and much of 2015 dictated a sea change in non-scripted documentary content. Bridging multiple formats, visual or otherwise, true crime evolved from mere newsmagazine episodes to full length series efforts, and each seemingly captivated the audience more than its predecessors. The quality of these products has been through the roof, and the critical and mass reception has followed in kind.
Serial was a phenomenon, and remains so in Season 2, though there’s less discussion about Bowe Bergdahl’s story than Adnan Syed. My personal feeling would echo that sentiment, though Serial’s sophomore effort is by no means a Nic Pizzolatto misstep. It’s just a different kind of story; not a pure crime, certainly not a murder mystery, and it weaves a narrative that’s a bit more difficult to hold focus on without needing a re-listen.
Sarah Koenig and the WBEZ team did a phenomenal job of pacing what easily could have been a Dateline episode, allowing it to unfold slowly, and bringing secondary tributaries into the story. Amongst the episodes are alternate theories, with time and care available to play them out. Also, Sarah and her crew search for witnesses who made questionable choices during trial. Serial didn’t need to worry about cliffhangers every five minutes, only needing one solid hook at the end of each entry to ensure everyone came back to hear the next installment.
In print, true crime novels average somewhere around 300 pages, give or take. So, if a case deserves that many words, usually they’re worth reading for fans of the genre. It takes six to eight hours for a good reader, as most of the type is small and the details plentiful. For some, it requires several additional hours to complete. Clearly, people have the attention span, and there are better examples. The O.J. Simpson trial captivated its audience for weeks. HLN could have been renamed the “Jodi Arias Network” or the “Casey Anthony Channel” and did good numbers with certain demographics during those trials. Court TV held a die-hard fan-base, and the market for true crime continues to expand.
What Serial proved is the market extends to the method of storytelling. A true crime novel can’t reach 300-500 pages without care and precision in the execution of facts. It has to be systematic, gradual, and filled with the most salacious, disturbing details imaginable. Every stone must be unturned, and, if possible, filled with other suspects to flesh out the investigative portion. It’s the same in Law & Order. While we can figure out who the killer is, we don’t get the green light until around the midway point of the ep, as the police give way to Stone or McCoy and Adam Schiff.
Koenig always describes Serial as “one story told week by week.” If anyone knows how to get the most of any news item, however obscure, it’s someone who works with Ira Glass. Serial’s concept was hugely effective and remains so, and The Jinx did it in similar fashion on HBO. Andrew Jarecki put his own spin on things and had the budget for a slickly produced gem of a series. It was a highlight of 2015, just as Serial was a major highlight of 2014.
Overall, however, you treat the truth like a fictional story, or the smart Dateline two-hour special that attempts to mask the villain, even with false interviews shot in a way where it’s impossible to see the prison jumpsuit before the reveal. There’s a style to this kind of work, whether visuals exist or it’s all purely radio and the theater of the mind. Balance of grit and realism with entertainment is an inescapable part of the deal. It’s still television, and that must be taken into account.
While Netflix’s Making a Murderer undeniably shares much in common with Serial, it may hold more common alleles with the trio of Paradise Lost documentaries that spanned the century, attempting to shed light on the injustices (perceived or otherwise) with the infamous West Memphis Three case. That tale sprawled through a small town, featuring a colorful (to say the least) cast of characters who just so happened to be real people in what sometimes appeared to be a surreal locale. I mean, it just had to be a movie right? This kind of crap doesn’t ACTUALLY happen…does it?
Damien Echols ended up the most recognizable face of the WM3 case, and was always the prime focus of the call to action from Hollywood celebrities, law professionals, and the general public. He was a sympathetic face, even if there was a certain darkness behind his eyes. He exuded something unique, and you wanted desperately for this kid to get off death row.
Not simply due to Paradise Lost’s effects, but likely exacerbated by its existence, an Alford plea set the WM3 “free.” It would be the subject of the third and final documentary on the story. The first time I saw the original film, my jaw hung open for weeks. I was obsessed with the case, reading every word I could find, including Devil’s Knot and eight trillion essays on misconduct, police overreach, and a travesty in the American judicial system.
We want to believe in “innocent until proven guilty.” It’s set through English jurisprudence and its presumption has been a major portion of common law for centuries. In addition, several provisions of the Constitution have helped to strengthen its acceptance and power. Through the years, defense attorneys and their clients have cried race discrimination, gender discrimination, and anything else to soften the hearts of or sometimes even force guilt in a juror. Occasionally, due process is hard to find, and courts become places of injustice, on both sides of the aisle. Some prosecutors do things they shouldn’t, and defense attorneys have a terrible reputation, courtesy of the Johnnie Cochran’s of the world.
Making a Murderer, a ten-episode documentary put together over the span of a decade, may have taken the cake for pure impact. Building off Paradise Lost, expanding on the concepts of Serial, and serving as a perfect vehicle for fans of The Jinx, Netflix dropped a bomb on the viewing public in December. Aesthetically, it felt like Paradise Lost. It wasn’t artistry. It was honest-to-god misery, presented with mud on its face. Every shot of the auto yard looked more bleak and less inviting than the last. This is the worst place on earth. And these people, even the good guys (maybe), were an unkempt bunch, questionable in every conceivable way. The richness created through the desolation is mesmerizing.
I can’t recall something without much initial hype that then drove so many conversations I had through the holidays with friends, family, and even colleagues. It seems like everybody has seen it, heard about it, and most of them have opinions. They also have questions, ones that weren’t answered through the course of what was largely a stunning achievement.
So what about the case itself? Episode 1 takes us all the way through the rape charge and the 18-year wrongful incarceration, a reality that proved two things. One: This is about to be a really messed-up, emotionally draining journey. Two: Our filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, have an agenda, and it’s one that favors the accused.
Documentaries are often seen as something they’re not, namely, fact. While it’s true that many facts exist within the films, the biases of the filmmaker are unavoidable. Michael Moore is the most obvious example, where he speaks the gospel to his congregation, while settling lawsuits or complaints with those possibly featured out-of-context in his work. His facts are questionable, and it’s true in every discipline that numbers and stats can be manipulated to make virtually any point. It’s why you’ll find damning percentages that prove guns are evil…and equally damning percentages that prove every American civilian should own a firearm.
Inside Job, narrated by Matt Damon, was a story of the financial crisis of 2008. Investment banks and CDO’s were the source, but the real culprit was deregulation, which of course is a major liberal talking point. While the facts are there, so are the opinions and some of the timeline. You’ll see it in virtually all of Alex Gibney’s works, and you’ll observe similar skew-jobs in Dinesh D’Souza right-leaning material. It comes with the territory. Documentary filmmakers usually wish to shed light on a subject, and it stands to reason they have certain pulls and pushes to whatever that might be. Much of the audience usually agrees with the slant before the fact, as in our world, avoiding disagreeable media is quite easy if one knows where not to look.
And then there’s An Inconvenient Tru…nope, not getting into that one. I’ll leave that metal tin of earthworms right where it is.
Making a Murderer makes a compelling case for police collusion and a vendetta against both Steven Avery and his family. We see some shady stuff from the Manitowoc County Sheriff Department, as well as the prosecution in both trials. We watch as the family is torn apart due to Ken Kratz and his aggressive brand of lawyering. We see his cohorts in crime; both in the DA’s office and elsewhere, and we notice city hall and Madison might also be in cahoots. None of these guys are portrayed in a positive light. In particular, James Lenk MIGHT have planted evidence, and had boatloads of assistance to cover it up after the fact.
It’s nasty. It’s scary. What if it happened to you or someone you loved? What if you believed, no what if you KNEW, with every fiber of your being, that your son didn’t imprison, brutally rape, torture, murder, and mutilate a woman on your property? And, when that same man was released from prison after nearly two decades — not because he finished his sentence — but because he was innocent and DNA finally exonerated him…just what would you think?
Those are the questions at the heart of Making a Murderer, a whirlwind trip to hell with no restroom breaks and no snacks. It’s hard to breathe. It’s exhausting, at times it’s slow, but it’s riveting in a way most stories, fact or fiction, rarely approach.
Who struck the biggest chord in the series? This time, it’s easy. It’s not Steve Avery. It’s not his parents. It’s not Brendan Dassey, though he’s fascinating to watch. It’s not Kratz or Lenk or anyone on the opposite side. It’s Avery’s defense attorneys, a super-duo whose passion, intelligence, and willingness to share their strategies and emotions amidst trial basically MADE the show.
Dean Strang and Jerry Buting have different strategies and varying tonality, but both are ridiculously talented attorneys. They’re also relentless and compelling as television characters. What’s striking about Making a Murderer is how well it plays as a television product in addition to is newsworthiness. It’s virtually impossible to believe a juror could have convicted Avery after they lay their case out about the Manitowoc County Sheriff Department out to finish the job it started with the rape investigation. The evidence, particularly the blood vial, is a stunning revelation, and when the judge shrugs it off, it feels like a punch to the stomach.
Buting is more methodical and intricate in his approach, whereas Strang wears his emotions and his intensity visibly on his sleeve. Dean’s drive is showcased from the moment we meet him to his final episode interview where he tears up talking about Brendan Dassey. I would love to have them defend me, though I must admit I’d love never to need them a substantial amount more.
Here’s the thing. We want to believe Steve Avery is innocent, because we want to believe his attorneys were right, that they weren’t just doing a job, but were fighting on behalf of their client. But, because the judge prohibits them from offering up alternate suspects to the crime, they’re handcuffed. As a result, so are we, because the one thing I wanted from Making a Murderer and never got was a true, detailed alternate theory of the crime. I ask those of you familiar with the series, if not Steve Avery, who killed Teresa Halbach?
We can talk about a few people, but we don’t have much to back it up. The insinuation is Manitowoc County was on the hook for a ton of money in Avery’s lawsuit and may have had motive, but it’s outlandish to think one of them would actually kill an innocent woman. At least, not without some serious facts to help us get there.
Unlike Paradise Lost, where numerous parents could have been guilty, in addition to other seedy individuals, Making a Murderer gives us precious little with which to create lasting doubt. Avery never posits anything solid in his jailhouse communications, nor do the family members. It’s always translucent at best, but often approaching opacity.
The further I’ve gotten from the series, the more I lean towards Steve Avery’s guilt. What choice do I have? I would love to think it might have been Bobby Dassey, possibly the sketchy stepfather, but we didn’t see enough for those ideas to be anything more than blind hunches. Were we to read into the case, we might uncover all kinds of skullduggery, but I haven’t had that pull in the same way I did with the West Memphis Three. Maybe it will come though, because I haven’t been able to get the story out of my brain.
Perhaps it’s actually a blessing in disguise, because the filmmakers in effect provided us with the same quantity and depth of information than the jury absorbed, so that we couldn’t play the hindsight game with an unfair advantage. I’ve wrestled with that possibility, but it nags at me that in that final episode, Strang and Buting still couldn’t say, “I wish we could have said it in court, but here’s how we think this might have gone down.”
It’s not a failure of the show, certainly not of the attorneys who probably didn’t have a choice and didn’t want to harm Steve or Brendan’s future legal proceedings, but it’s irritating. Making a Murderer is sobering, it’s mind-blowing, and it’s infuriating, and I still think Steve Avery probably committed the crime. I felt the same way about Adnan Syed, though in both scenarios, I could never have voted to convict, because the reasonable doubt wasn’t difficult to locate.
As a ten episode series, Making a Murderer is fantastic stuff, though you’ll have to restrain yourself from throwing your remote, your television, your computer, or yourself through a glass window as you watch Manitowoc’s finest railroad first an innocent man, and then brazenly involve themselves in the murder scene, compromising its integrity. Even after the second trial begins, Manitowoc County officials state that they would doubt Avery’s innocence in the Peggy Beerntsen sexual assault. I’m still scratching my head how he was convicted in the first place.
The most ridiculous moments in the series take place after both initial legal proceedings, as Brendan Dassey attempts to get a second trial due to the absurd conduct by his original attorney, Len Kachinsky, who was playing both sides of the fence. In an incomprehensibly maddening sequence, we see Dassey, a developmentally challenged adolescent, being coached into confession by Len’s investigator. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, not even on How to Get Away With Murder, and that show is flat out nuts.
It’s hard to recall a series that left more legitimate “Are you kidding me” moments than this one. Sheriff Kenneth Petersen’s line about how it would have been easier just to kill Avery than frame him resulted in an immediate “You’re fired” from my mouth. I said it out loud, in an empty room. I couldn’t believe it actually happened. Everything Kachinsky did floored me. Lieutenant James Lenk popped up where he shouldn’t have been throughout the investigation, a fact that had me uneasy at first, then angry. Sergeant Colborn has the same problem. If they didn’t want Avery in jail, they have a funny way of illustrating that position.
And Judy Dvorak, what the hell? Credibility, well he just left the building folks. And of course, there’s a 7-3 vote to acquit that morphs into a conviction, which is a major eyebrow raiser. The incestuous relationship between local and state officials and the DA’s office is troubling.
And then comes holier than thou prosecutor Ken Kratz and his sext messages to a domestic violence client. I didn’t like that jerk anyway, and then Making a Murderer gave me a reason to despise him. He was an egomaniacal, whiny, terrible guy. And that press conference where he poisoned virtually the entire town with information that shouldn’t have been publicly released.
Even Detectives Fassbender and Wiegert toed the line of what’s acceptable, though as they poke and prod Brendan Dassey, it’s believable and wasn’t shocking. It was eerily reminiscent, however, of Jessie Misskelley’s confession under duress in Paradise Lost. Both had low IQs and both were questioned for hours without anyone in the room supporting them.
I sound way over the top on Kratz, but it’s the only conclusion when you see the facts as they’re presented in the documentary. Once again, perhaps echoing the feelings of the two women behind the camera, he was the villain in the story, or one of them. Just something about him that was entirely inauthentic and seedy. Then we found out he was also a bit of a pervert. Though he wasn’t Voldemort, he was a key Dementor in the tale. Incidentally, he’s stated he was denied a chance to tell his side of the story, denied an on-camera interview, among other facts that were either left out or altered. Again, it’s the problem with documentaries. Even if Kratz isn’t being truthful, it’s all hearsay.
This was not an objective scenario. It wasn’t hidden either. Making a Murderer is, in effect, a more adequate defense for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s the exact opposite of what happened in Manitowoc County and certainly in court. The series basically glossed over the rape trial, telling that portion of the story in one episode, using it only to serve as the catalyst for the larger trial. Given that the filmmakers didn’t learn of the Avery story in any detail until 2005, some of the key earlier footage may not have been available to them.
However, it just never stopped. Each episode ramped up the drama and brought the pain, and no that’s not a reference included for levity. This was a hard watch. It was impossible to stop, and it was rewarding and enlightening, but it was difficult to no end.
While there’s no “I killed them all” Robert Durst reveal in the finale, because that kind of thing isn’t just rare, it’s a unicorn, Making a Murderer leaves behind a horrific taste in the mouth. While Avery might have done it, probably did it, there’s no certainty. It’s a mess, and Dassey in particular represents someone caught up, one way or the other, in the single event that changed, and may have destroyed his life.
It took ten years for Laura and Moira to put this together, and you have to wonder how the local media in Wisconsin looked at them as they filmed press conferences and followed the Avery and Dassey families. These were two students in Columbia University film school; working on a project that you have to imagine many thought would never actually see the light of day. I’m sure that was awkward at times, as is the reality that both PBS and HBO passed on the series when the pair pitched it to them in meetings. Netflix was the third option.
It saw the light of day. And, in its wake, everyone who has seen it has been affected. It’s all over social media. It’s being discussed on television, on radio, and in print. Similar to Serial, to The Jinx, and most of all to the West Memphis Three case, something just doesn’t smell right. It never did.
The effort to put Making a Murderer together is immensely impressive. The two young filmmakers made an imprint many of their colleagues will never duplicate. I’m curious to know what’s next for them, but ten years is quite a long time. We don’t know exactly how many people have seen the series, because the numbers are hard to quantify on a streaming service, but I do know this…
At least four out of every five people I know is talking about it. I’ve gotten people hooked on it. They’ve done the same. It’s spreading like wildfire, and the timing couldn’t be worse for law enforcement, who remain embattled and in danger. Kocourek and everyone that follows him in Manitowoc County reflect precisely what those who do the job correctly are attempting to overcome. Most police and sheriff’s are good people who protect us and our families, but I’ll say this…
There was a ton of money on the line in the Avery wrongful conviction suit, like many many millions of dollars. If nothing else, that one fact gives me pause, especially after the conduct of the MCSD and related entities in the first investigation, and certainly in the second. What it means is all up to interpretation. However…
I’ll be driving BELOW the speed limit if I’m in Manitowoc County.
Check that. I’ll never visit Manitowoc County.
I might just avoid Wisconsin.
Making a Murderer was THAT BAD, and THAT HAUNTINGLY GOOD.
I’m @GuyNamedJason. If it comes down to “frame me” or “kill me,” do the latter. Also, make sure my dad records WrestleMania for me.