Be prepared to yell and shake your fist at the television. The Netflix docuseries “Making A Murderer” isn’t leisure viewing, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t addictive. With its compelling narrative about a Wisconsin man possibly being framed by the state’s corrupt criminal justice system, this documentary threatens to take up all your time as your tear through its ten episodes. Each of hour-long show will likely inspire at least one instance (and maybe a couple) of jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing horror at how the case against Steven Avery was made —and I mean “made” in the sense of possibly being fabricated, as the series posits.
First-time directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos spent a decade investigating and documenting a case in rural Wisconsin that attracted national attention. The first episode of “Making A Murderer” begins with Avery’s release after an 18 year prison sentence for the rape of a woman in 1985. Throughout the initial trial and his imprisonment, Avery maintained his innocence, even when admitting guilt would get him a chance at early release. DNA evidence finally proved that he wasn’t guilty of the crime, and he returned to his home and auto salvage yard in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, he sued the county’s sheriff’s office, which he believed was responsible for his wrongful imprisonment, but he was quickly suspected of another crime, this time the murder of a young woman, Teresa Halbach, and he again pleaded innocence.
Subsequent episodes reveal layer upon layer of the case, calling into question the integrity of the Manitowoc County sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office and even the FBI. Avery and his attorneys Dean Strang and Jerome Buting claim that he was the victim of a conspiracy after his exoneration and eventual lawsuit damaged the reputation of county authorities. Adding an additional element to the proceedings is the case against Avery’s teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, whose involvement in what unfolds is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the story.
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“Making a Murderer” is Netflix’s first original documentary, after finding critical and commercial success with both dramas and comedies. This series brilliantly walks the line between highbrow true crime procedurals (NPR podcast “Serial” and HBO‘s “The Jinx“) and supposed lowbrow (Investigation Discovery‘s generally under-the-radar ratings success), giving it a broad appeal.
Similar to “Serial,” this isn’t just a case of “did he or didn’t he” with respect to either Avery or Dassey, which is part of what simultaneously elevates the series above standard true crime fare and makes it even more compelling as entertainment. It raises larger issues pertinent to the American justice system and how it’s far more imperfect than we’d like to think. Whether we’re looking at local police, prosecutors or juries, there’s the question of how American ideals work in practice, particularly jurisprudential concepts of “innocent until proven guilty” and “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Avery’s troubles don’t merely extend to his less than exemplary history before he was first convicted. Longstanding perception within the general population of Manitowoc County regarding his family’s supposed degeneracy strongly influences his experience with justice at every phase of both trials, from suspicion to arrest to verdict.
As in some of the most engaging documentary series and films, the heroes and villains in this series seem to be just as virtuous or as vile as envisioned in fiction. Special prosecutor Ken Kratz all but twirls his bushy mustache throughout the episodes as he outlines the state’s case against Avery, and Dassey’s first lawyer Len Kachinsky isn’t exactly a shining example of a public defender. However, Avery’s defense attorneys Strang and Buting fight with tenacity and fierce intelligence for their client, winning the affection of the audience.
Across ten years, Ricciardi and Demos have crafted an engaging documentary series that delves deeply into Avery’s life and the incidents that have seen him spend the majority of his life incarcerated. They have intimate access to Avery, as well as many in his family and the others involved in the case. They intercut interviews with courtroom footage, as well as local and national news coverage. Their camera lingers on the auto salvage yard owned by the Avery family, with both close-ups of the cars as well as impressive aerial views. “Making a Murderer” is hardly impartial, but it presents a view of Avery’s case that didn’t seem to be represented as it was unfolding through local and national media in the mid to late ’00s.
As excited as viewers have gotten about other Netflix shows like “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Orange is the New Black,” “Making a Murderer” has the power to go beyond memes and thinkpieces, since this series concerns what is widely considered a miscarriage of justice. Theories as to Avery’s innocence abound on both Reddit and news sites, and a pair of petitions with a combined hundreds of thousands of signatures have surfaced since the series’ release as well. The real feat in watching “Making a Murderer” isn’t finishing the series in record time; it’s avoiding any real world spoilers about how the cases proceed while you’re in the midst of a binge. [B+]