When “The Jinx” (HBO) concluded earlier this year, with Robert Durst’s digestive fireworks to accompany his confessional ones, director Andrew Jarecki’s docuseries seemed to set an impossible bar for subsequent entries in the genre. From a form most often associated with sweeping histories (Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”) and natural wonders (“Planet Earth”), Jarecki had wrung both the narrative thrust of fiction and the immediacy of real life, culminating in Durst’s unforgettable self-interrogation: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
That the spell cast by “The Jinx” dissolved the next morning, as Jarecki evaded questions about the series’ muddled, manipulative timeline, was a potent reminder that nonfiction often resists the rhythms of drama, the pleasurable tidiness of arcs and acts on which episodic storytelling is based. Though “The Jinx” avoided the sense of narrative stasis that led many to abandon the first season of “Serial,” in which reporter Sarah Koenig and her team of researchers pursued every lead in the case of Adnan Syed only to come up empty, Jarecki committed a far more grievous offense. He had lied, if that’s not too strong a term, by omission.
With the return of “Serial” and the debut of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” not to mention Field of Vision‘s excellent “This is a Coup,” the forthcoming “Dark Net” (Showtime), and the parodic “8 Years Lost” (in development at USA), the rise of the prestige docuseries shows no signs of abating, and yet the genre’s sometimes-indelicate balance of ethics and aesthetics persists. In demanding that docuseries function as if they were fictional dramas, are we also tacitly urging filmmakers and journalists to take liberties with the truth?
Of course, playing fast and loose with the facts in the service of compelling stories is nothing new in nonfiction—and, to name but three examples, Paul Almond and Michael Apted’s remarkable “Up” films (1964-2012), the “Paradise Lost” trilogy (1999-2011), and “The Staircase” (2004) all navigate the particular demands of the docuseries with aplomb, sustaining our interest over multiple installments without conceding their accuracy in the process. What’s changed, as much as the form itself, is its distribution: the new docuseries are condensed to weeks or months, rather than lifetimes, and can be accessed on-demand by a larger pool of potential consumers than ever before. What was once a fixture of arthouse cinemas and public television is now a lucrative pop culture phenomenon, and with this transformation may come increasing pressure to “compete” in the “marketplace,” to “stick the landing,” to satisfy audience expectations. To treat docuseries as prestige dramas, however, as in the case of “The Jinx,” is to ask more of the truth than it can bear.
The astonishing “Making a Murderer,” a cold, hard of gem of in-depth reporting from filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, thus registers as a tonic, preferring the gradual accumulation of detail to the fateful confrontation or shocking twist. It’s a workhorse, not a show horse: for the past decade, Ricciardi and Demos have documented the life of Steven Avery, a working-class Wisconsin man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985, exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003, and then—in the midst of a $36 million civil suit against local law enforcement—arrested in connection with the 2005 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, for which he was sentenced to life in prison in 2007.
Layering the intimate atop the institutional, embedding the offhand remark within the major event, “Making a Murderer” in fact constructs a careful argument against the salacious, echoing Avery’s own fear that the first victim in the court of public opinion is due process itself. One of the most horrifying interludes is an interview in which an ambulance-chasing producer for NBC’s “Dateline” says, without a shred of irony in her voice, “Right now, murder is hot… We’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.” The worst excesses of “true crime,” from local news to the broadcast networks, seem to haunt the series, as if to underline its wariness of falling into the same pattern.
The filmmakers’ rejection of this approach is evident not only in the series’ unhurried cadences, but also in its raw aesthetic, cobbled together from tape-recorded phone calls and archival video footage that unspool in long, discomfiting stretches. Tactics we tend to accept, unthinking, in the high-gloss framework of the crime drama—police aggression, insistent questioning, various forms of entrapment and coercion—become repulsive in the wan, bleary eyes of the camcorder, stripping away the sense that such means are rare exceptions rather than normalized expressions of unchecked power. Despite its nominal interest in the creation of a monster, despite the common vernacular of heroes, antiheroes, and villains, “Making a Murderer” focuses much of its investigative acumen on systemic abuses, and so rediscovers the docuseries as an evolving snapshot, shaped by the stories it records as much as it shapes them.
That this is Koenig’s way of explaining “Serial,” with explicit reference to the visual arts, strikes me as strangely fitting. (Notably, her collaborator this time around is “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal.) From the start of the first season, the podcast is almost cinematic in structure, always intertwining two tracks at once—on the one hand, the narrative; on the other, how Koenig and her producers arrived at their version of the narrative—and despite the scrutiny that followed its initial success, I remain enamored of the series’ willingness to scratch at both what we know and what is knowable.
Introducing the second season, which focuses on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl—the U.S. serviceman set to be court-martialed for leaving his Afghan post in 2009, after which he was held captive by the Taliban for five years—Koenig returns to one of the podcast’s main themes, the substructure of nonfiction stories, only this time she might be discussing “Making a Murderer”: “Out and out it zooms, the aperture of the thing getting wider and wider until the original image is so far away, it’s un-seeable. That’s what the story of Bowe Bergdahl is like… At every turn, you’re surprised. The picture changes. To get the full picture, you need to go very, very small—into one person’s life—and also very, very big—into the war in Afghanistan.”
If the danger of the prestige docuseries is to invite too much blurring of the line between truth and fiction, “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” among others, promise a vital corrective. Sifting through the evidence, weighing the outcomes, changing the size of the frame, each bubbles away at a slow boil as though in defiance of “The Jinx.” Taken together, they suggest a poetics of the form rooted not in the conventions of “serious” drama but in the docuseries’ novel sense of space and time, showing us the un-seeable by becoming microscope and telescope at once.
New episodes of “Serial” are available Thursdays. All ten episodes of “Making a Murderer” premiere on Netflix Friday, Dec. 18.