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Netflix’s Making a Murderer: why everybody missed the point of the true crime doc

The short answer: because it was on Netflix.

Steven Avery is the subject of Making a Murderer.
Steven Avery is the subject of Making a Murderer.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In nearly every interview they've given since the launch of their Netflix true crime sensation Making a Murderer, directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have struck the same note.

They didn't go into the project seeking to exonerate Steven Avery, they say. They have no opinion as to whether or not he killed Teresa Halbach, they say. Their aim is to highlight problems with the US legal system that should give pause even to those who come away from the 10-part documentary believing Avery really did commit the crime for which he is currently imprisoned, they say. The question is not one of guilt or innocence — it's one of prosecutor misconduct and horrible mistreatment of the accused, they say.

You can believe or not believe Demos and Ricciardi as you will. (I think they perhaps protest too much, as this New Yorker piece about the documentary, written by Kathryn Schultz, would suggest.) But what's inescapable is that all the stuff they wanted to talk about really is in the film. It's right there, for viewers to latch onto. So why has it been largely ignored in favor of the latest examination of "did he or didn't he commit the crime?" The answer is simple: because of how the material was presented.

How the response to The Jinx differed from the response to Making a Murderer

The Jinx
Robert Durst, as featured in HBO's The Jinx.

The easiest way to think about the collective response to Making a Murderer is to look back at another true crime documentary sensation released in 2015: HBO's The Jinx.

That project, too, faced criticism that it was too in-the-pocket of its subject, accused murderer Robert Durst (or rather, it did until footage from the project appeared to show Durst confessing to those murders). That project, too, provoked a massive discussion of how true crime documentaries work. And that project, too, caused frequent debates over the fairness of the criminal justice system. It even spurred its own post-airing controversy, about what director Andrew Jarecki knew about the explosive "confession" footage and when.

Yet few viewers left The Jinx unaware of any of the above. Jarecki didn't have to spend interview after interview speaking to his true intent, and it's not as if he packed The Jinx with lots of moments where, say, interview subjects patiently explained that Durst's status as a very rich man meant he could afford better legal representation. He trusted the audience to be able to keep up — just as Demos and Ricciardi apparently did.

Some of the reason for this is that Jarecki is just a better, more experienced filmmaker than Demos and Ricciardi. He'd almost have to be; he's made more films than they have. He also had a larger budget, which shows. The Jinx is filled with artfully staged reenactments and beautifully lit interview scenes. Making a Murderer is mostly composed of flatly shot courtroom footage. That it's so compelling in spite of its lack of visual depth is a testament to Demos and Ricciardi's skill in and of itself.

The major difference between the two projects is this: The Jinx was presented on a week-to-week basis; Making a Murderer was presented in one big gulp. The former allowed for plenty of time between episodes to tease out the themes Jarecki and company were pursuing. The latter hung its material on the framework that was most immediately compelling: the question of Avery's guilt or innocence.

How binge-watching flattens TV shows to one or two major elements

Lewis and Danes in Homeland
Brody (Damian Lewis) and Carrie (Claire Danes) explored their relationship in the famously bumpy second season of Homeland.

The effect that binge-watching can have on viewers' response to a TV show is something I first noticed back during the second season of Showtime's Homeland. When it aired, the season was roundly derided for its ludicrous plot twists and bizarre emotional logic, with viewers laughing over, say, a pacemaker being hacked via the internet. What had happened to the sinuous espionage series of season one?

Yet I found that viewers who watched Homeland's second season on DVD or on demand had an almost uniformly different experience. In that format, the weird, gonzo plot twists that caused so many weekly viewers to throw up their hands in frustration were reduced from a series of jarring potholes to a bunch of minor bumps in the road.

When watching the season all at once, it was much easier to key into the season's biggest swings and broadest strokes. Who cared if some of the smaller moments didn't entirely work? For binge viewers, the big picture was still a success.

I've observed this phenomenon time and again, with numerous shows: Viewers' response to a series as it airs week to week is vastly different (and more critical) from the one it receives when it makes its way to DVD or streaming.

Binge-watching, simply put, wears down our critical faculties. It tends to reduce a series to its most obvious elements, setting aside the considerations of theme or meaning in favor of the most surface-level plot and character stuff. It, in other words, flattens a show.

This is not to say you can't perform a critical assessment after a binge-watch — if it did, it would mean I was lying every time I reviewed a TV show after bingeing it. But it does mean that the binge can cause the onset of a sort of vegetative state, where the next episode is always there to welcome you after the previous one ends, and it's all the easier to just keep going.

As I argued in 2015, Netflix itself is inventing a new sort of art form, where the length of the story being told is novel, yes, but so is the way in which it's assumed you'll consume it — all at once, in a big pile. This reduces each episode to just another unit, mostly there to mark a natural stopping point rather than anything else. And, indeed, as Netflix's Ted Sarandos told me when I interviewed him for that piece, the streaming service increasingly thinks of its seasons as big, long episodes, a marked change from how TV has traditionally been produced.

How this all affected Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer directors
Laura Ricciardi (left) and Moira Demos (right), during filming of Making a Murderer.

All of this brings us back to Making a Murderer, which wanted to be about one thing but ended up, in the minds of its many fans (as well as many members of the media), mostly being about whether Avery deserves to be in prison.

The numerous other themes that Demos and Ricciardi have talked about — the criticism of media coverage of Avery's case and trial, the examination of prosecution tactics to influence juries, the deep dive into small-town prejudices, the consideration of class in the American judicial system — are all present in the documentary. But they're much easier to miss (or ignore) when you watch all 10 episodes in a weekend (or less).

If Making a Murderer had been released on a weekly basis, with the discussion proceeding more slowly than it did under the Netflix model, it would have been easier to tease out all these things in the conversations that sprung up around the show. When consumed all at once over the holiday break, it necessarily became all about Avery and whether he committed the crime.

The binge-watch demands resolution, requires getting to an endpoint. Thus, in cases where the story doesn't have an endpoint, viewers are left to seek answers on their own. My guess is that Demos and Ricciardi concluded Making a Murderer on a point of irresolution both because releasing their film was the best way to reopen Avery's trial (by spurring public demands to do so) and because irresolution would hopefully make us think about what we'd just watched and about what Avery had to endure in the legal system. Instead, it just made us debate one question endlessly, over and over.

I don't want to exonerate Demos and Ricciardi entirely. They did choose this particular person as their subject, and they did create a movie that neatly elides a few of the more unsavory aspects of Avery's past. It's not hard to watch Making a Murderer and believe they had made up their minds about Avery's innocence long before they turned on their cameras. The way they created the film may ultimately end up backfiring on them, particularly as news outlets dig into Avery's crimes more and more deeply.

However, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy every time they walk into another interview (or take to Twitter) and repeat the same talking points they've been repeating since Making a Murderer became such a hot topic. While it's possible their statements are just a sign of lousy PR management — rote responses from which they never deviate — I suspect their answers are more indicative of bewilderment and frustration that their creation has been so thoroughly taken from them and turned into something else.