These shows, especially the (potentially) wrongful conviction narratives of "Serial" and "Making a Murderer," have had a peculiar power over people, and not just as entertainment. Consumers want to be part of the story. Just look at the many thousands who signed petitions to free Steven Avery, the imprisoned subject of "Making a Murderer," and "Serial's" Adnan Syed. Then there are the active Reddit communities positing theories, digging up dirt and tracking down court documents.
But there's one big difference between these two cultural addictions. One element that made "Serial" so revolutionary — an openness about reportorial bias — isn't in "Making a Murderer." It's easy to feel duped as details emerge about which facts the series captured and which the filmmakers chose to leave out or downplay.
This genre is nothing new. In cinematic form, one of the most prominent examples is Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line." The 1988 film was so powerful, its subject, Randall Dale Adams, was exonerated from a Texas prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer. Morris recalls that moviegoers brought petitions to screenings, garnering thousands of signatures. Even so, the public was slow to catch on.
"Today the situation is really different," Morris said. "Whether it's National Public Radio or Netflix, it's possible now to bring things to the attention of millions of people relatively quickly and create a feedback loop."
"Serial" jump-started the recent resurgence, breathing fresh life into the genre with its confessional tone. One of the draws of the podcast, aside from its complex and gripping tale of Baltimore County high school senior Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of murdering ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, was the narrator. Producer-host Sarah Koenig walked us through her process. She pulled back the curtain on what it means to be an investigative reporter, describing how one lead guided her to another, and listeners witnessed her exacting due diligence. The efforts she spent just to figure out whether or not there was a payphone in a Best Buy parking lot gave her credence as a trustworthy guide.
But she was also reliable because she expressed her emotions about Syed.
In episode 7, for example, while speaking to the Innocence Project's Deirdre Enright, Koenig said, "I go up and down, I go up and down! Sometimes I am totally with him and then other times I am like, 'I don't know dude, why can't you remember anything?' "
Koenig waffled throughout the 12 episodes. Sometimes she was on Team Adnan, while other times she doubted the words of the man calling collect from a Maryland correctional facility. During the last episode of the season, she gave her final opinions about Syed's innocence.
"I don't believe any of us can say what really happened to Hae," she said during the episode. "As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That's what the law requires of jurors. But I'm not a juror, so just as a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think? If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn't do it."
Koenig admitted that it wasn't the decisive ending she had hoped for. She didn't uncover the truth. But she had tracked down as many facts as she could, then she was honest about how those facts made her feel. Viewers could form their own opinions — and they did.
"Making a Murderer" ends in similar fashion, with a lot of reasonable doubt and no clear alternative theory for who killed the victim at the center of the story. But the filmmakers used a different approach. There's no first-person narrative; just a collection of archival footage and interviews with occasional captioning for context. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos did a masterful job of creating a gripping series out of a lot of subpar clips. The story is so astonishing that you stop noticing the repetitive B-roll of beat-up cars in a salvage yard.
In this case, the man sitting in prison is Avery, a Wisconsin native who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1985 and served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. There's substantial evidence that police ignored other credible leads in their quest for Avery.
But that's just episode 1. The rest of the story: About the time Avery was filing a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, he was arrested again, this time for murder. He was ultimately convicted of killing Teresa Halbach, a photographer for Auto Trader Magazine, and he's serving a life sentence. His 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also found guilty, as an accomplice, and is eligible for parole in 2049, when he'll be nearly 60 years old.
These would be appropriate punishments, except a lot of the case details don't add up. The documentary effectively explores how police, who certainly seemed to have it out for Avery, may have planted evidence. Meanwhile, we see Dassey, who we're told has a low IQ, confess to the crime only after a leading interrogation where no lawyer was present.
In short, Avery comes across as a sympathetic character in the series. And that's partly because the filmmakers left out or glossed over crucial facts.
Some of them are still being disputed, but here's one that no one is challenging: In 1982, Avery went to prison for animal cruelty after pleading no contest. The series makes the whole event seem little more than an accident during a time when Avery had fallen in with the wrong group.
"We were fooling around with the cat and I don't know, they were kind of negging it on and I tossed him over the fire and he lit up. I was young and stupid," he explains.
Avery's crime seems a lot more heinous in actuality. He was found guilty of pouring gasoline on the cat, then throwing it into a bonfire. That paints a different picture.
Investigative reporter Jessica McBride, a senior lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has covered the Avery case extensively in her column for On Milwaukee since the release of "Making a Murderer." She even wrote a piece about 14 troubling elements of the story that were absent or whitewashed. The biggest for her was the series's insistence on discrediting the finding of Avery's blood DNA inside of Halbach's car (the defense suggests it was planted) while glossing over the fact that Avery's DNA, from sweat, was found on the hood latch of her car.
McBride praises the filmmakers' ability to raise important questions about the actions of law enforcement, and she calls "Making a Murderer" a seductive narrative. And yet…
"It's a manufactured narrative told from one side," she said over the phone from Milwaukee. "It's very well done, and it's designed to lead you to the conclusion that he was framed."
Even if the two men are guilty, the series is still essential viewing for its portrayal of a broken justice system in which the poorest members of society end up powerless against the hulking Goliath of a corrupt government. No one explains it better than Avery when he's talking on the phone with his parents, who are trying to remain optimistic. "Poor people lose," he tells them. "Poor people lose all the time."
In fact, the filmmakers say they weren't all that concerned in getting to the truth of Avery's role in the murder.
"We were taking a procedural look at the system," Ricciardi told Rolling Stone. "We have no stake in the outcome of the trial. We have no stake in whether Steven is innocent or guilty. What a risk we would have taken as filmmakers to devote all our resource and time to a case if it was going to hinge in a particular outcome."
And of course a filmmaker can only fit so much into 10 hours, and picking and choosing is all part of the painstaking game of editing. But how to decide what to leave in and what to take out?
Filmmaker Steve Mims covered much of the same themes as "Making a Murderer" in his documentary "Incendiary: The Willingham Case," which looked at the conviction of Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in 2004 for murdering his family. Mims, who directed the movie with Joe Bailey Jr., said that he opted to focus more on the evidence than the man. Like Avery, Willingham was "not an icon of citizenship," according to Mims, but the director chose not to open that particular can of worms.
"For us, we tried to stick to the science," he said. "That's the problem with a lot of these cases, they're so emotional, that if you wander outside of the real evidence, then it's pretty easy to make [viewers] not like a person."
The creators of "Making a Murderer" purport to do the same thing — focus on the evidence, the trial, the science. And yet the series spends copious amounts of time with the Avery family, who are portrayed as earthy outsiders. (McBride, meanwhile, says a number have criminal records, including violent offenses.) This is as much character study as it is documentary activism.
Ironically, the curated depiction of Avery is reminiscent of what police investigators do when building a case. During one memorable interview in "Serial," Koenig spoke to a former police officer who distinguished between "bad evidence" — the stuff that doesn't support a detective's theories — and the good variety.
"But then, see, I don't get that," Koenig told former homicide detective Jim Trainum. "I mean that's like what my father always used to say, 'All facts are friendly.' Shouldn't that be more true for a cop than for anyone else? Like, you can't pick and choose."
In truth, you can. But that doesn't mean you should.