The Netflix true crime documentary series, Making a Murderer centres around an investigation into the events during which Steven Avery was falsely convicted for rape for 18 years, then following his release, accused and convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach. Ten years worth of footage has amassed a cult following, turning its viewers into armchair jurors, as they follow the seemingly contentious outcome of a man who may have been the victim of a prejudiced trial. However, this has troubling consequences.
The format of the show plays out as a real life whodunit, and its lack of clear resolution is designed so that the viewer is in doubt of Avery’s guilt, and the effectiveness of the American judicial system. Although this results in gripping viewing, it is a dangerous retelling of the trial, as all the elements of the six week trial could not be compressed into the 10 hour series. The filmmakers had to be selective, and inevitably, some damning evidence was left out of the documentary.
However, in an age where social media provides the opportunity for mass communication, the documentary has not just triggered debate, but caused huge online reaction, culminating in 380,000 viewers signing a petition to pardon the man in question, Steven Avery, of his murder conviction. He has become an anti-hero for viewers, wronged by the ‘evil’ American judicial system.
This is where the line between entertainment and a real life criminal case becomes blurred, to the point of being problematic. The case has been contorted to ensure that it remains captivating viewing for all those watching it, but still marketed as completely factual, leaving its viewers with the naïve impression that they are experts. Herein lies the risk with Making a Murderer, where there are real world implications of a show that was essentially made for entertainment. Expressed succinctly by one man who has the ability to pardon Avery, Governer of Wisconsin Scott Walker, when he stated that “just because a documentary on TV says something doesn’t mean that’s actually what the evidence shows.”
This anti-hero worship is nothing new. Obvious examples can be seen in the form of Walter White, the rogue Chemistry teacher who cooks meth in Breaking Bad and Pablo Escobar’s drug lord character in Narcos. In the case of Walter White, whilst he of course is fictional, his character is still morally reprehensible. Yet, Mr White has spawned a following so large it makes him one of the most popular fictional television characters of the last ten years. How is it possible, then, that a man who, if he existed in reality, would be unmistakably considered a ruthless criminal, is elevated to the status of an icon for the viewers of the show? Simply, he has been humanized. The viewer does not just see a drug manufacturer, but a father, a husband and a desperate person.
This is, of course, far less problematic than the effect of watching something factual. Just watching Breaking Bad is not enough to spur an audience member to start cooking meth in an RV, so the real world implications of this are, in actuality, minimal. In contrast, the true crime genre has consequences, such as the petition pleading for Avery, a convicted murderer, to be acquitted and released. This style of series without a doubt makes compelling and exciting television, but its draws its pleasures from ambiguities, which the filmmakers know, and therefore emphasise. The show is designed to raise questions concerning Avery’s guilt, and humanise him, allowing ordinary people to have public opinions on the conviction of a dangerous man.
Image credit: Mike Petrucci