It is with a twang of guilt that the archetypal bingewatcher of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” realizes that the taut, expertly-told story he or she is watching could be summarized as though it were the schmaltz-ified voiceover in a trailer for any puffed-up TV legal drama. The narration writes itself: cops corrupt to their medalled gills. An unwitting, simple man in the slammer for a crime he (apparently) did not commit. Two lawyers on an All- American crusade to prove his innocence. All this with an uncomfortably intimate Midwest backdrop just naïve enough to be rocked to its core by the murder of the new millennium, and any viewer familiar with In Cold Blood and the past few decades of American true crime will be instantly at home.
The mini-series, which chronicles the tumultuous legal battles endured by Wisconsin native Steven Avery, accused of the rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach and forced to defend himself in court, is an uncanny spectacle. The Avery family, disdained by their hometown in Manitowoc County as hick untouchables, is accosted on every side. TV news bulletins shrilly preempt guilty verdicts, archival footage of interviewed townsfolk reveals wild oscillations in public opinion on Avery’s culpability and the sheriff’s department seems involved in everything from death threats to planting evidence at the scene of a murder.
The series and its creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos cannot be faulted for lack of thoroughness or for sense of pacing. Without ever verging on soporific, a massive amount of information is crammed into the series’ meticulous presentation of the Avery murder investigation and trial: bloodstains, genetic tests, a mysteriously conjured car key, inconsistencies in timetables and so on. The homemade nature of the series’ footage keeps the audience perpetually in the grip of the emotions the protagonists are undergoing: a breath of momentary relief, the palpable haze of tension surrounding any major decision and the cosmic sadism of watching real people’s lives being gutted. This is how a crime story is told at optimum; that much is beyond denial. Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, incidentally, are nothing short of heroic.
A review of the series, however, should not merely focus on the program itself. “Making a Murderer” is as much a cultural phenomenon worthy of study as good TV, because does not conclude with the outcome most viewers want. A consequence of the build-up and disappointed anticipation is that the viewer reemerges from his rheum-inducing binge with an opinion, an opinion he is going to share and act upon. There has been a positive flood of “Making a Murderer”-related material online: Buzzfeed, which published a video compilation of “17 Thoughts You Had Watching ‘Making a Murderer,’” can even read minds to this end! One intrepid Tumblr user created a blog dedicated to Dean Strang’s newfound status as a fatherly sex symbol (“Strangcore”); another Internet user sent the sexual offender and fan-hated prosecutor Ken Kratz a glitter bomb. This is all standard fare as far as Internet humor regarding any given day’s cultural happenings goes.
Facetiousness aside, it is easy to see that the series is cultivating its own miniature petri dish of a fanbase, which adds up to a disquieting prospect: a murder trial is a TV event. The series does not treat it as such, and goes so far as to actively discourage such a mentality. Nevertheless, a headline posted on Jan. 30 on the Daily Mirror online about a “shock revelation” in evidence left out of the Netflix documentary is flanked in the recommended TV news section by “Celebrity Big Brother viewers aren’t happy,” (boo-hoo, celebrities) and “Stephanie Davis DUMPED Zayn Malik,” (encore, boo-hoo).
What, then, does analysis of the aforementioned petri dish reveal? A swab of legal-istas, plus a swab of armchair detective-ing, plus a swab of “TERESA’S GRIEVING BROTHER DID IT” hue-and-criers, equals change.org! The sacredness and gravity of the loss of one human life and the perpetual confinement of two more suddenly turn into a spasmodic, whodunnit game of Clue, providing the fodder either for overly sincere packs of piranha-like social media-goers or those inclined to blatant flippancy in the name of “humor.” Consult the series’ Facebook page for the former and Seth Meyers’ spectacularly unfunny parody for the latter.
Not all coverage of the series has been thoughtless, however, and that which is is by no means the fault of the show’s creators. In making a compelling documentary, they happened unfortunately to have stumbled upon a knee-jerk reaction of the viewing public. “Making a Murderer” triggers a very specific emotion in the impressionable viewer: unambiguous, unquestioning righteousness. Of course, Steven Avery must be innocent, of course, the viewer is qualified to point as many fingers as he pleases, the viewer has just watched “Making a Murderer!” The viewer sees through the corruption and lies of the contemporary USA; his outrage-of-the-minute sense is positively tingling. It is one thing to suggest that Manitowoc law enforcement should have investigated more options; it is quite another to bandy about “Making a Murderer” “theories,” as one would about the JFK assassination and 9/11, those other real-life tragedies turned to farce. Still, it feels just so darn good to be on the right side of the docket, right? Is it not gratifying?
Dean Strang cautions towards the series’ end that all human endeavor is inherently imperfect, and the series strongly implies that the bombardment of premature, openly hostile news coverage tampered with the Avery trial from the very beginning, rendering a fair verdict impossible. “Making a Murderer,” incredibly, contains and condemns the seeds of the phenomenon which could cause its own destruction: why would a viewer exposed to so much of the folly of mass hysteria then interpret the pang of loss and the pain of separation as a speculative crime drama that just happens to have really happened? Perhaps it is because they are just people on the TV, after all. Or perhaps the answer is simpler: The average viewer is not very bright, and unsolved murder and wrongful conviction make for a double whammy of feel-good fun.
Griffin Smith Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.