Need-to-Know Basis: Making a Murderer, Serial, and the New True Crime

steven avery

True crime used to be tawdry, on late-night network television and low-numbered basic cable channels, hidden on bookshelves in a back corner of the bookstore, featured in magazines you’d be embarrassed if your mailman saw. Now stories about Making a Murderer, the latest zeitgeist-conquering entry into the genre, are at the top of the New York Times trending list; Seth Meyers made his return from the holiday break with a parody; and tens of thousands of people have signed a petition about its subjects, asking for clemency, and sent it to the President of the United States. The genre has skyrocketed to respectability in the past year, as more reputable examples grab the attention of listeners and viewers. At JFK this fall, I bought at a newsstand a collection of the New Yorker’s best true crime articles.

Murderer, whose 10 episodes went live on Netflix in early December, have been binge-watched since by a snowballing number of people, to judge by its cultural saturation. (Netflix doesn’t release numbers about viewership.) The popularity of the show is a testament to the strength of its subject and construction, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. As one of its creators told the Times, “With the amazing success of The Jinx and Serial, thank god it took us 10 years to pull this together.”

The New True Crime seems to have happened by accident, a marketer-designed trend, each entry piggybacking on the success of a serendipitously recent predecessor—The Jinx onto Serial, Making a Murderer onto The Jinx—until an old genre seemed to be undergoing a real renaissance. Looked at closely, though, each major new entry has also approached the classic genre from very different angles; they may have less in common than they seem to.

Serial sparked this new obsession with true crime, when it launched its first season in late 2014 and fast became a cultural touchstone. Many commentators at the time focused on the novelty of its medium, the podcast, but in the ensuing months no podcasts of remotely similar popularity have emerged; its greatest influence, at least in the short term, has been on its genre. Serial was a surprise blockbuster whose creators didn’t anticipate its popularity; host Sarah Koening and her producers were still reporting when the series had its premiere, still shaping their perspective, and it shows: week by week, Serial could convince you of opposite truths. You listened to one episode sure that Adnan Syed had killed his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee; when you finished the next, you were calling your congressperson because you knew he’d been set up; and so on.

The core of all crime and true-crime stories is a fundamental human desire to know What Happened, a desire that can grossly mutate into need (see: David Fincher’s Zodiac), and, at first, that was the allure of the first season of Serial, too; but over time, its real appeal was the fascination of the unknowable, which put the podcast at odds with most of its predecessors. A similar recent example might be Robert Kolker’s fantastic 2013 book Lost Girls, about the Long Island serial killer officials still haven’t identified; there, though, the lack of closure felt more like an unfortunately necessary narrative defect than an epistemological exercise.

We live in a time without unsolved mysteries—or Unsolved Mysteries. The modern television true-crime archetype is Forensic Files, which airs perpetually in reruns on HLN, combining basic investigative procedures with newfangled technology to prove cases scientifically; each episode ends with several talking heads testifying that they never woulda solved that case without forensic science. It’s satisfying not just because of the resolution, but also because producers present that resolution as empirically sound. Serial was more reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper case, and it made you feel like it was the 19th century again: all you had were intuition and a few plausible theories, none convincing enough to embrace wholly. Even the “science”—the cellphone evidence—turned out to be untrustworthy!

This ambiguity was the crux not necessarily of Serial’s popularity but of the explosive popularity of the genre that followed it. Koening’s denial of the tawdriness at the center of her case study had an air of respectability; it felt less leering, relieving some troubled audience members of their moral trepidation. We could now look at murders and murderers with our brows held high. We were all Sherlock Holmes—gentleman detectives.

If anything, the show’s unanswerable mystery may have had an antecedent in Andrew Jarecki’s breakthrough 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, in which conflicting accounts and retracted confessions created an ambiguous portrait of two accused child molesters. (Few at the time would have classified Capturing the Friedmans as “true crime,” because back during Bush’s first term the phrase still connoted the endless iterations of redundant American serial killers or the lurid confessions of pleaded-down mafiosi.)

A decade later, Jarecki’s HBO miniseries, The Jinx, approached true crime differently: it was fascinating for its villain, whose increasingly outlandish crimes were at odds with the wimpy, hard-blinking New Yawk millionaire sitting for interviews with Jarecki. The show was addictive not so much because you “needed to know” as you needed to have your convictions confirmed. You wanted to hear Bob Durst say he did it, which he did in the very last scene, making for a truly satisfying finale.

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Though real-estate scion Durst has little in common biographically with Dick Hickock, Perry Smith or Gary Gilmore, The Jinx seems to have the most in common with postwar true crime’s urtext, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and its acme, Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song. (For a more recent example, try Dave Cullen’s mythbusting Columbine.) While they all chronicle compelling crimes, they focus on character, on the killers—on the façade that obscures a hazy wickedness within.

I wish Helter Skelter, still the best-selling ever true-crime book, were another example, except the author, Vincent Bugliosi, was the district attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson, so he’s far more fascinated with the police investigation and the day-to-day trial proceedings than with the astounding man at their center. (I gave up early on the recent NBC series Aquarius, because its portrayal of Manson was so ho-hum ordinary serial killer, which he most certainly was not!) There’s a pleasing avuncular authoritativeness to this that makes it more palatable to accept Bugliosi’s otherwise outlandish theory of Manson’s trying to incite an impending race war by impelling his minions to murder. Still, the book ultimately feels more like autobiography masquerading as reportage, not unlike Walter Kirn’s recent and overrated Blood Will Out.

Joe McGinniss’s classic 1983 page-turner Fatal Vision, about Jeffrey MacDonald, who claimed a cartoonishly Mansonesque band of hippies butchered his family, is another portrait of a killer, except it straddles a line: it began as a case of advocacy journalism, to clear MacDonald’s name, except McGinniss became convinced while reporting that MacDonald had actually killed his family. The inherent ethical dilemma was famously chronicled in Janet Malcolm’s withering response, The Journalist and the Murderer. The case, in fact, spawned a small cottage industry, including, as recently as 2012, a book by filmmaker Errol Morris, A Wilderness of Error, critical of both McGinniss and Malcolm.

Erroll Morris knows advocacy true-crime reporting; his groundbreaking breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line, got its hero, Randall Adams, released from prison, where he was serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, just like Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost films, which highlighted a trio of wrongful convictions in West Memphis, Arkansas, and eventually helped get the “murderers” released.

Morris has a distinctive aesthetic; The Thin Blue Line was full of influential slow-motion and artful close-ups, which would define reenactments thereafter—and still do! Paradise Lost is not as visually distinctive, though it still takes itself seriously as cinema, not only smartly assembling its found footage with talking heads but also featuring sweeping helicopter perspectives and groundsweeping tracking shots, meant to convey that the movie will take a macroscopic as well as a microscopic view of its case.

These days, few documentaries, true crime or otherwise, are as seriously visual, as access to digital cameras expanded access to the means of storytelling and most documentary filmmakers abandoned form for content. Part of this is the shift away from movies into television (and, unique to Serial, podcasts); you need not be as cinematic for PBS or an app as you do the arthouse, the old de facto home of nonfiction visual narratives. The Paradise Lost films are the historical link between Morris and Making a Murderer; a trio of movies made for HBO over 16 years, Paradise Lost today would surely have been a miniseries, if not a multiseason show, periodically updating binge-watchers with new information, because clues aren’t most satisfyingly consumed—they’re gorged on.

This change in distribution infrastructure gave us Making a Murderer, which seems mostly unconcerned with aesthetics, despite its noble attempts to find us something to look at during the many from-prison phone conversations with its protagonist. What lingers aren’t the images but the tale. It shares a structure with Paradise Lost, compellingly intertwining moments both public and private—family phone calls and courtroom proceedings. The series seems more about the latter, the legal process, than the man at its center, Steven Avery, a hillbilly who confesses to not owning any underwear; it argues he isn’t a perpetrator but a two-time victim, first for serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit, now for serving a life sentence for a murder he may also not have committed.

The show’s creators, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, may convince you that he never killed anyone, that he may have been set up by local officials terrified of the power he possessed at a county level as an Innocence Project celebrity—because his wrongful-conviction lawsuit might have bankrupted Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (Prosecutor Ken Kratz says the documentary omits key facts, but the filmmakers and Avery’s lawyers dispute this; also, Kratz is one of the most unlikeable, hypocritical, sanctimonious villains ever to appear on a screen—and perhaps in the real world!) You don’t hear any cops or lawyers confess, but the case is convincing; you don’t need to know what really happened so much as you feel the need to see real justice done.

But Steven’s story is nothing—nothing—compared to the story of his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who’s so clearly innocent of any wrongdoing that it’s nauseous to watch him questioned, arrested, tried and convicted by reprehensible detectives and prosecutors. He’s now in prison, where he’ll likely stay for the next few decades. You know what happened—he got railroaded—and it becomes something closer to true horror.

With a focus on criminal justice, humans coming into the story as they relate to it, Making a Murderer is like Law & Order, or even Helter Skelter, except viewed from a scathing outsider’s perspective; Murderer shows what happens when the system becomes too trusting of its own procedures, so that if two cops unscrupulously pressure a slow-witted teenage boy into confessing to (and inventing the risible details of) a gruesome crime, it starts a process that can’t rest until the kid is convicted, his appeals exhausted.

Brendan Dassey’s story is very different from Bob Durst’s or Adnan Syed’s; “true crime” can look as unified as “crime” itself, which is just a loosely related and shifting category of behaviors. Then again, maybe each show has more in common with the others than it seems. After all, they’re all about psychopaths: in the case of Serial, the one you can’t see; in the case of The Jinx, the one right in front of you; and, in the case of Making a Murderer, the one that makes it all possible—the system itself.


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