True crime mania has swept the US. The first inklings of the genre's moment in the sun came when the first season of Serial exploded into a national obsession in late 2014; then 2015 brought the endlessly debated pleasures of The Jinx, as well as a host of Serial-alikes, including an in-development fictionalized TV show about the making of Serial (got that?).
Netflix's entrant into this true crime gold rush is a series that seems to aim, almost, to push back a bit against the fascination around dark deeds and awful murders. Though not without faults, Making a Murderer, a documentary whose 10 episodes are all available on the streaming service, is a sobering look at what seems to be a wrongful conviction carried out entirely due to spite.
This is not a flashy series. A good portion of it is dedicated to courtroom footage, and its shoestring budget shines through at various times. There are no clever reenactments, and the filmmakers do not become characters onscreen.
Instead, Making a Murderer asks a question lots of Americans have been considering recently: If the police really want you to go to jail, even if you haven't committed a crime, is there anything you can do to stop them?
Warning: I've seen all 10 episodes of the series, and I highly recommend it. If you haven't, leave now, because I'm going to start spoiling things (that are already a matter of the public record and could be found with a second's Google search, but still).
Making a Murderer is built around one big gamble
The gutsiest thing about Making a Murderer is that it seems to have made up its mind about its central subject, Steven Avery. The Wisconsin man was wrongfully convicted for the sexual assault of one woman, then convicted for the murder of another woman named Teresa Halbach, right as his lawsuit against the county for his earlier conviction was playing out.
At first glimpse, the evidence that would seem to lead to Avery's second conviction appears incontrovertible. The dead woman's car was found at the salvage yard his family operates. The key to that car was found in his home. His blood was found inside the car. The cremated remains of her body were found on his property. He was, so far as anyone knows, the last person to see her alive. Finally, a teenage relative confessed to helping him commit his crime and dispose of the body.
And if Avery did murder Halbach, there's still an intriguing story about institutional corruption to be told. If Avery is a murderer, then he was almost certainly made one by the 18 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and he spent those 18 years in prison because his local police department had prejudged him, based on his family name, even as the man who actually committed the crime was staring them right in the face. That would be a series about the limits of justice and the ineffectual ways the American prison system attempts to rehabilitate offenders.
But Making a Murderer mostly doesn't bother with that. It hedges its bets here and there, but it clearly doesn't believe Avery killed Halbach. Indeed, it believes the police seized on Halbach's murder as a convenient way to frame Avery for a completely different crime, so he would go back to prison and avoid embarrassing them with a costly lawsuit.
It's a big, gutsy gamble, one mostly based around the idea that where there's a lot of smoke, there has to be a fire, despite Avery's attorneys having no single piece of evidence that would point to their client being framed. And yet there's a lot of smoke, floating all over the place.
Making a Murderer is ultimately about small-town prejudice
Avery's initial conviction and its subsequent overturn are collapsed into the first episode, while the aftermath of that decision takes up roughly half of episode two. Ricciardi and Demos devote almost everything after that to the investigation into Halbach's murder, Avery's second trial, and the aftermath.
Though Ricciardi and Demos have an obvious point of view (about which more in a bit), they otherwise stay out of their story's way. They take advantage of TV's expansive scope to turn nearly everybody in the vicinity of the trial into a fascinating character in their own right, and they mostly present the story via unflashy, straightforward techniques. There are talking heads. There are overhead still photos of the salvage yard. There are police videos entered into evidence.
Where Ricciardi and Demos tip their hand just a bit is when they tackle the idea that Avery was wrongfully convicted the first time because he wasn't the right type of person. The Avery family, living at the edges of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, were never part of the "right" group, and their lower-class, outsider ways made Steven Avery easy to demonize when the time came, despite there being surprisingly little evidence to tie him to the sexual assault.
At its center, Making a Murderer asks why it's so easy for people to throw up tribal identities in essentially any situation. Without this need for tribalism, the obvious flaws in the case against Avery would have been seen, and he never would have gone to jail, and maybe this entire story wouldn't have happened. Every time Ricciardi and Demos drill down into these questions of snap judgments and small-town prejudice, Making a Murderer comes alive.
But it also loses sight of a woman who died
Making a Murderer has one sad thing in common with too many other true crime tales: It never once bothers to make the victim of a heinous crime into something more than a figure that gives the story its inciting incident. Teresa Halbach was a real person, whose death ripped a hole in her family, and even if Steven Avery didn't kill her, the film does her a disservice when it spends so little time thinking about her as anything other than a part of Avery's larger saga.
Yet particularly in the last few episodes of the series, it becomes harder to shake the notion that Ricciardi and Demos don't believe Avery killed Halbach but also don't have the faintest idea who might have. One of the most powerful moments in Avery's trial is when one of the attorneys for the prosecution says that to accept that the police framed Avery for Halbach's murder is to accept that the police may have committed the murder, too, an argument that's hard to shake.
These twin problems are at the heart of most of Making a Murderer's stumbling blocks. Ricciardi and Demos do a terrific job of laying out all of the evidence for Avery being framed, but they fail to provide more than a ghost of an alternate scenario (mostly suggesting Halbach's ex as a possible culprit) that might offer a plausible explanation. I'm willing to be convinced, and Making a Murderer does a damn fine job of at least suggesting Avery's case should be re-examined. But the special stops just short of suggesting he definitely didn't kill Halbach.
Then again, that's part of the series' point. If the police really wanted to frame you for a crime, it suggests, they probably could without having to break too much of a sweat. It wouldn't even have to be a department-wide thing. A couple of determined, high-ranking officers could likely do it without too much trouble. And once that happens, it's easy enough to shut down alternate lines of investigation, because, well, the police are the ones conducting the investigation.
Thus, Making a Murderer finds strength even in its weaknesses. It's a sprawling small-town saga that, nonetheless, feels lived-in and intimate. And even as it succumbs to some of true crime's greatest faults, it's always less interested in the gruesomeness of the crime than in the impossibility of finding the truth, something that serves it well. This is grim television, but it's also necessary television.
Making a Murderer is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.