Usually, for something to merit both a call-to-arms from hacktivism overlords Anonymous and an official response from the White House, it needs to be a matter of global importance, not a TV show. But if you’re familiar with Netflix’s Making a Murderer, you’ll know it’s not just any TV show. Since its release in December, co-directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s investigation into the story of Steven Avery – a 53-year-old Wisconsin man who served 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit, only to be sentenced to life for a murder it’s far from certain he did – has hijacked pop culture. Hot on the heels of HBO’s The Jinx and Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast – not to mention the 50th anniversary of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book which more or less invented the genre – our fascination with true crime stories has hit new heights. But why now?
It’s turned internet users into desktop detectives
There are many reasons for the renaissance, but chief among them is the internet. The series themselves have become jumping-off points: as soon as they end, we’re discussing them in minute detail on social media or petitioning on their behalf. There’s an irresistible feeling of being able to shape the outcome, and in the case of Making A Murderer and Serial – whose first season resulted in the re-opening of the investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee – it’s not misplaced.
“Creating a sense of interactivity and online involvement was never our intention with Making A Murderer, but watching the reaction to it has been pretty crazy,” says Demos. “I see now how that sort of discussion can drive viewership. It’s thrilling to see people voicing their concerns in different ways.”
Its long-form storytelling cuts deeper than films
Not so long ago, the obvious format for projects like The Jinx or Making A Murderer would’ve been a documentary – and films like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: The Selling Of A Serial Killer or Jinx director Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans have been hugely influential in establishing the look and feel of many contemporary true crime docs. Yet the cases themselves are often dense, sprawling affairs, not easily compressed into a two-hour feature. This is where TV comes into play.
Series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men – complex dramas populated with morally ambiguous antiheroes – have made TV audiences smarter than ever before. And while cinema mostly trades on spectacle, TV has mastered the art of long-form storytelling. Making A Murderer or The Jinx might’ve caused a minor stir in the cinema, but as TV shows they’re cultural phenomena. As Jarecki said last year, “The Jinx became so much more a part of the national conversation than if we had made it as a film. No matter how many people see a film… it can’t have the same currency as when millions of people have access to it instantly.”
It taps into widespread feelings of social injustice
Making A Murderer isn’t so much a whodunnit as a howdidthishappen. Uncovering the identity of Teresa Halbach’s killer wasn’t the aim – the emphasis was on the process by which Avery was railroaded by the authorities and the bias that ensured he didn’t get a fair trial. According to Demos, “We chose Steven’s story because of the window it could offer onto the criminal justice system. Making A Murderer was always meant to be a social justice film that would raise questions about the system as a whole.”
Last summer, a Gallup poll revealed Americans’ confidence in law enforcement was at an historic low of 52 per cent. At the root of that statistic were the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott at the hands of white police officers. The faces in Making A Murderer are all white, but the issues the show raises chime with the concerns of millions of Americans – of all skin colours – who no longer see the police as ‘good guys’. While dramas like NCIS or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit depict law enforcement as it would like to be seen – fair and all-but infallible – the popularity of Serial and Making A Murderer can partly be explained by their willingness to show these institutions as they really are – subject to basic human prejudice and easily corruptible.
“The series is timely, given the dialogue Americans are having about the power and integrity of our police forces,” says Ricciardi. “But even if we weren’t reading daily accounts of shootings and abuses of power, I still think it would resonate. The cop shows you see on TV are made to entertain, not educate, and they’re not at all representative of how things actually work. I like to think our series offers the viewer an education about the criminal justice system.”
It keeps on giving
For true crime fiends, 2016 will be fascinating. The Jinx’s Robert Durst is due in court on the murder charges he inadvertently confessed to in the show’s finale, while Serial’s second season – about US soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s alleged desertion – is set to be swiftly followed by a third. As for Making A Murderer, Avery’s recently filed appeal hints at more twists and turns, and the team aren’t ruling out a second season. “If there are developments, we’ll follow them,” says Demos. “That’s the thing about real life – you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”