‘Making a Murderer’, ‘Serial’ and the exploitation of crimes for our entertainment
I’m thinking of creating a tee shirt line, making shirts that say, “Yes, I binged on ‘Making a Murderer’ because inevitably it’s the question on everyone’s mind. The water cooler talk, if you will. And it is no surprise why: the case of Steven Avery has better twists, turns, deceptions and cliffhangers than decades of soap operas. Last year, my tee shirt line would say, “Ask me if I think Adnan is guilty,”, referring to the podcast sensation Serial which followed his trial and subsequent sentencing to life in prison. Similar to making a murder, the mystery than unraveled across the series had more reveals than an episode of Lost.
True crime stories are really hot right now. But it is not that true crime as an interest is new. A true crime “purist” may be thinking, I was into true crime before it was mainstream. Ever hear of a little something called Dateline? Frontline? Helter Skelter? Unsolved Mysteries? Forensic Files? and then perhaps feel obligated to name our true crime classics, like Dear Zachary, Capturing the Freedmans, or Paradise Lost. We like to challenge people by proving we’ve seen the most, and, non-mainstream crime documentaries. My go-to was There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, but now all the streaming services carry it so it mainstream now. Darn it.
Up until now, many true crime fans have had to rationalize our like of true crime, adding things like, “I like dark things,” or, “I just am amazed at what the human mind is capable of,” lest we let people think that we, ourselves, are sociopaths or have our own homicidal thoughts.
But, now it’s fine to like it because you like it. It’s mainstream. It’s the zeitgeist. Making a Murderer, Serial, and HBO Documentaries, for example, have provided some quality true crime storytelling. Not reporting, storytelling. Because every documentary is a story, not the actual truth. Documentarians rarely make a documentary because they want to see what happens naturally. The finished project is always a story and an angle. Almost every episode had a shot of Steven Avery’s parents sitting forlornly, emotionally exhausting, somehow hoping for the best. The films are also a form of entertainment. Sure, they can be enlightening and say something about, for example, the state of the criminal justice system, the slaughter of dolphins in Japan (I’ll bet you haven’t seen The Cove.)
Making a Murderer also gave us a cast of characters that were as good as any good show: The surprise dreamboat attorney, Dean Strang, the villainous James Lenk, the lecherous district attorney Ken Kratz (that is a comic book villain name if I’ve ever heard one.) My favorite was Barb, Steven’s sister and Brendan Dassey’s mother. Her crunchy bangs and winged hair, refusal to dress in anything manufactured in 1985, and “take no shit” attitude made for interesting television and great scenes. This is the same “character” who, after her son Branden is convicted, runs out of the courtroom, screaming “We lost” in absolute agony, lashing out at the story-hungry reporters trying to get her statement. Here is a woman whose son’s life is completely ruined, and, probably her life as well. It is the agony of woman whose son was fucked over by the system, a sheriff's department who took advantage of that and her ignorance about lawyers. And then I just hit “play” on the next episode.
Over the holiday break, I had time to binge watch television properly. I stayed with my parents, and my mother and I watched Making a Murderer together, exclaiming out loud at the revelations (The sketch of Steven looks like it was drawn from a photograph! Brendan Dassey’s testimony! Pam finding the RAV4! They key in the bedroom! etc etc,) Watching was stressful, but that is why we were drawn to it. It was like a masochistic type of watching. Watch your facebook feeds, your friends are likely posting things like “WTF?” and “I can’t watch an episode without screaming at the tv!” and “I watched all of it in one day and never got dressed!” It’s a cultural participation, sharing your confirmation that it is something you, too, are having the same reaction. Making a Murderer and Serial are popular because of the discussions that people are having about it. Serial launched several podcasts that were about the Serial Podcasts.
After you’ve finished the last episode of Murderer, and as Serial stopped appearing on your podcast feed, we went onto the next thing. (Have you seen Transparent? How about Mr. Robot?) We get to get up from the couch. Go find the next thing. My mother and I went right on to watch The Great British Baking Show (which is fantastic, by the way). Steven Avery and Adnan are still in prison. Even worse, Theresa Halback and Hae Min Lee are still dead, their parents are still grieving them. Their death has done a service to become our entertainment. They are the gladiators in our coliseum.
I am not excluded from causing this, I, too, have participated in these collective pop culture events, and, after turning them off, gone on about my fairly privileged life. Maybe at a party I’ll bring up my knowledge of the Justice System, or my hatred of Sea World (You’ve seen Blackfish, obviously? Right?) But I have benefited from exploiting people’s stories. And thousands of others have. Contrarily, the films have been shedding light on the faults of the criminal justice system as an institution, and to think about class in America. This is not a bad thing. Is the exploitation okay because it also produces this effect?
I don’t want to criticize us as individuals. Most of the fault are the filmmakers. The film Paradise Lost: Murder in the Robin Hood Hills, chronicled the trial of the three teenagers know known as the West Memphis Three. From that documentary, grassroots activism due to the injustices seen, had an influence on the Three’s later release, and, not to mention, produced two other films about the reactions from the first film. The filmmakers of Making a Murderer, in the most obvious observation, believe that Steven Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s department, and, to a lesser extend, did not kill Halbach, based on the lack of time spent investigating who the real killer may be. And, if you’ve been reading, there’s been lots written about what was left out of the documentary series.
The filmmakers have succeeded by all accounts. Their show is one of the most talked about on Netflix. Secondly, it has caught the passion of the public. An online petition of almost 300,00 signatures has been sent to President Obama, who clarified that he is not able to pardon him. If there was a simple google search done by those 300,000 people, this petition wouldn’t exist. But it was a simpler way to rationalize that they do care about Steven and that they did SOMETHING, which is better than nothing, as they finished the last episode of Murder and went on to watch episodes of House of Cards or Bloodline or Friends. They told a story that people believed, that swayed opinion. Isn’t that every filmmaker’s dream?
Just as the criminal justice system is blatantly flawed at an institutional level, the enjoyment of Making a Murderer and other popular true crime as entertainment is concerning at a larger, institutional level. I’m not pointing to any of you who watched and enjoyed the series (including myself, remember). It’s more of a sum of its parts, including the filmmakers agenda, the distribution, the social media influence, our constant need for content to entertain us, and the often narrow lens which we lead our lives. And like anything that we enjoy, we want more of it. Clickbait listicles of otherwise ignored true crime documentaries are all the rage, and the more disturbing the better. It seems we are building a contest to see who can be the most upset and most willing to tolerate the brutality. We’re not sadists, we are consumers for entertainment.
What is Adnan Syed thinking right now? Is he aware that over a million people heard his phone calls with Sarah Koenig and the details of his trial? Did it give him hope? Perhaps he felt used, exploited, impotent to reaping the benefits of it. (Although, there have been small developments with his appeal case.)
Steven Avery is arguable the most talked about “celebrity” at the moment. I am sure that he is grateful for the documentary, especially that it depicts him how he wants to be seen. (Personally, I think he killed Teresa Halbach, but that’s another essay that has already been written about several times.)
Somewhere out there, a federal injustice and/or a potential criminal are waiting there for us, for a documentary filmmaker to see an opportunity to share their story with the world, and we’re ready to add it to our Netflix Queue for our next binge watch. They will get attention, but is it in the court of public opinion, internet clicks, think pieces, but unlikely given attention by the attention they need: as human beings and as someone with a right to due process.
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