The criminal justice system in this country is such a fickle beast. It’s supposed to be the paragon of objectivity but, just like anything that involves humans, that’s hardly ever the case. As an idea, as a concept, justice is supposed to be blind, is supposed to be cold, is supposed to be righteous, and those that are tasked with carrying out her will are supposed to reflect those “virtues.” There’s the rule, static and unwavering, and then there’s those that enforce the rule. They’re supposed to work in tandem with one another, the place where the head and the heart intersect with one another and, in a perfect world, finding the truth that almost always lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately for many, this is not how it goes, or so it seems. Does smoke always give way to fire?
Netflix’s new true-crime, docu-drama series, Making a Murderer, examines the “so weird it must be true” case of Steven Avery – a man who had recently been exonerated for a sexual assault that he spent 18 years in prison for – and his 16 year old nephew, Brendan Dassey. They were accused of the kidnapping, rape, and torture of Teresa Halbach. The series examines both the trial process and the way that the media shapes public perception, and how that can effect a trial.
It’s all presented in a real time fashion, there’s no talking heads speaking with hindsight about the case. We experience all of the events in the same way that the involved do. I found myself yelling at screen more than a few times, as I was over come with frustration by the prosecution, by the defense, and by the media. It is legitimately “edge of your seat” stuff. So much so that I felt mildly guilty for enjoying it as much as I did but, on the other hand, the film makers do a fantastic job of maintaining empathy for most of the people involved, and even when the “characters” are pointing fingers at each other, or the media, they always maintain some semblance of objectivity.
It’s a difficult thing to accomplish, objectivity, and considering the fact that we spend most of the series with the accused, their defense and their family, the task of fairness becomes exacerbated. So it’s a testament to the film making that we are never lead to a conclusion. Things feel presented as they are, and not as someone wants us to perceive them to be, which is important both in terms of this as an engaging story, full of mystery and revelation, and as piece of balanced documentary film making. I think they presented the case about as fairly as they could.
There’s the story and then there’s the meta-story involving the media and their role in how these kind of trials play out. It’s not really focused on all that much, but you are always made aware of their presence, and are confronted with their callousness, as they bum rush “uncooperative” family members, so that they can ask them innocuous questions like “Does this make you sad?” It’s a really depressing reminder that even those in the news business treat these types of stories with as much nuanced care as a bunch of shirtless hill people, sucking down malt liquor and discussing who fucked who’s sister or brother. Yeah, it’s a good time, but it’s also kind of terrible and isn’t very informative.
The level of created sensationalism around these types of cases can’t help the process. It creates a weird bias and detachment amongst those that view their programming. These people cease to be human, as the media crafts them into characters that are designed to support the most sensational slant they can cook up. Even when it comes to “true-stories,” people don’t tune in to things that are boring. It’s a reality about human nature that literally runs the media at every level; from the local headline “Could your children die in their sleep tonight?”, to to the national level “Is America just one giant terrorist cell?”, it’s all deriving from the same intention. They know what you want and they give it to you but, just like 2lbs cheese-steaks and fried twinkies, it’s rarely what’s best for you, or what you actually need.
To be fair, you could lobby a lot of the same criticisms towards the series itself, and you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. The filmmakers have crafted something that is incredibly entertaining and compelling out of an all around tragedy. No matter what conclusion you, as a viewer, come to once the credits roll after that tenth hour, it’s not going to fix anything. It’ll stick with you for a day or so, and then you’ll move on. Now that you’ve been entertained, have been distracted from your daily life for a few hours, what’s the point of sticking around on an emotional level. I mean it’s not like you’re Eddie Vedder. Because if you were(Are you there, Edster?) then maybe you could bring some attention to the situation. Eddie, Jeremy’s broken…(Ok, I’m done. Sorry.)
You’re left with a lot to think about afterwards,and even if those thoughts are ultimately fleeting, it’s more than I can say for a lot of stuff that I watch.
It seems like this series was a real labor of love on the part of the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. It was an almost 10 year journey to bring this project to fruition and, in my opinion, it really paid off. If you’re interested in learning more about what production was like here’s a pretty interesting New York article about their process. I find their dedication, and the dedication of people that have worked on similar projects, to be really impressive, and I have a lot of respect for folks that dive headlong into these kinds of this. I imagine just the fact that they had a story to tell, after all that time, felt like a small miracle.
I’m kind of a sucker for this kind of stuff. I grew up on a healthy dose of Unsolved Mysteries and American Justice, so if you’re coming from that kind of a space, I think you’ll really enjoy this series. It’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain of our justice system and, oddly enough, it’s an exercise in empathy and perspective that I didn’t see coming. It elevates what would otherwise what would be a 60min segment on one of the aforementioned shows.
Just a side note here, if you enjoy this show and are still hungry for more, I’d recommend a series called The Staircase. It’s an even more intimate look at the work of defense attorneys in another contentious case. Honestly, I can’t believe I never wrote anything about that show. It’s really good. There’s been a lot of great true-crime stuff over the past few years. Oh! I almost forgot! I’d also recommend The Jinx. It’s a character study of sorts… That’s all I’ll say. The less you know, about either of these projects, the better. Just watch them. Trust me!