Last year, NPR’s Serial podcast sent a certain portion of the population into a frenzy over the case of Adnan Syed, convicted for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee when both were high school students in Baltimore. Serial’s angle was that the case was incredibly, frustratingly twisted; there were so many inconsistencies, so many questions that were never, and probably can never be answered. A similar story, though in reverse, was told this past year by Andrew Jarecki and HBO in the documentary series The Jinx, which followed the case of Robert Durst, a man suspected for several murders, but who always was able to evade the law.
Netflix is looking to do something similar with Making a Murderer, a 10-part documentary series about the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exonerated for a crime by DNA evidence after 18 years in prison (reminiscent of the fictional Sundance series Rectify), only to then then find himself back in custody in connection with a brutal murder several years later. Absolutely nothing about the case is simple or clear, and even Avery’s family members struggle to reconcile their feelings against the ever-changing presumption of guilt.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have been documenting the Averys for almost a decade, and the wealth of their material is incredible. But it can also feel like too much. In an effort to show every possible angle of the case(s) against Avery, the series can get bogged down in details, losing the bigger swells of the story’s ups and downs. In fact, the biggest misstep the series makes may be in how it jumps in without any overview. For those unfamiliar with Steven Avery and the allegations against him, it’s difficult to know what are the most important elements to focus on, and what is just supplementing the overall story.
The essentials are thus: Avery, from a family of outsiders, is by no means perfect — he had a history of petty theft and many personal oddities — but he is sought out and pinpointed as the perpetrator of a crime he almost certainly did not (and could not have) committed, involving the brutal beating and attempted rape of a local woman. His conviction was rushed through the courts thanks to a corrupt sheriff’s department and an indifferent state legislature, who refused to overturn the ruling — 18 years later — until DNA evidence (in a most bizarre fashion) was presented that could not be denied.
The shaming of that local department, and what seems like a personal vendetta against Avery by several people in that office, continued to haunt him as he settled back into living his life, becoming a hero for The Innocence Project, and testifying in an investigation into state law enforcement. It also complicated the investigation of a new crime occurring several years after his release. When a young woman disappears, and evidence appears to lead the police to Avery, his nephew admits to having a hand in the crime alongside his uncle. But Avery’s lawyer uncovers a clear conspiracy in the case. So did Avery commit the crime, or was he set up? Does the truth exist somewhere in between? Where does the nephew fit in?
That’s where the fourth episode of the series — the final one available for screening — leaves off, and it’s both a tantalizing cliffhanger and an exhausting realization this isn’t even the halfway point. Buried among the deluge of facts, interviews, and video footage (much of it grainy and having to be subtitled, shot in the 80s and 90s, which adds to the documentary’s both homespun and ominous atmosphere) is an incredible story with almost unbelievable twists. But the amount of detail, connected with cold interstitials, does often douse Making a Murderer’s flames instead of fanning them. It’s a story that needs narration, or some kind of guide to sort through the reams of information. And yet, it’s that huge amount of information that highlights the filmmakers’ desire to approach the story from every conceivable angle.
For fans of channels like Investigation Discovery and other devotees of true crime stories, Making a Murderer will likely be a thrillingly specific journey into the minutia of a truly twisted series of events. But for casual viewers, it’s a dark journey that will require fortitude, and the knowledge that there are no simple answers, and justice may not be served.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Ambitious, difficult television
Making a Murderer debuts on Netflix in full on December 18th.