'Making a Murderer' and True Crime in the Binge-Viewing Era

Netflix's hit series is part of a wave that's changing the making of true-crime docs — and how they're being watched

Steven Avery, right, the subject at the center of Netflix's popular true-crime docu-series 'Making a Murderer.' Credit: Netflix

The jury is still out, so to speak, on whether the runaway success of the Netflix series Making a Murderer will have any effect on the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. But its impact is already being felt far outside the judicial system. "I've never been busier," says documentarian Joe Berlinger, whose Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (co-directed with Bruce Sinosfky), has been cited by Murderer's filmmakers as a primary influence. "Crime has always been a staple of television, but I've never been approached more by the networks. I get phone calls: 'I want Serial, but with X,Y, and Z.' 'We want the next Jinx." He is currently finishing up a series on the parole system for Investigation Discovery — who are preparing their own quickie "Instamentary" on the Steven Avery case — and developing one on a serial killer for another network.

Along with the public radio podcast Serial and HBO's multi-episode portrait of Robert Durst The Jinx, the streaming service's 10-hour deep-dive into Avery's case(s) is both riding and augmenting a new wave of interest in the most ancient of subjects. The fascination with true crime is nothing new, but the binge-watching (and -listening) era is changing the way the stories are consumed, and how they're made. Tim Horsburgh, the director of communications for Chicago's Kartemquin Films, recalls directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos bringing a rough cut of Making a Murderer to the venerable documentary film institution's filmmaker labs several years ago, back when they were trying to make it into a conventional two-hour film. "We all had the same note," he recalls, "'Wow, what amazing story. You have too much material for a feature. This should be a series.'" 

Five years ago, the options for turning a Wisconsin murder trial into a documentary series were slim, but as the content maw yawns ever wider, previously unheard-of opportunities manifest themselves — and sometimes bigger is better. Ricciardi and Demos pitched Making a Murderer to Netflix as an eight-hour series. They were given 10.

Lengthy nonfiction series are a public-TV staple — see Kartemquin's seven-hour The New Americans, or Ken Burns' entire career. But where a series like The Civil War is authoritative in its scope, Making a Murderer goes deep instead of broad, exploiting the inherent drama of a murder investigation and subsequent criminal trials. Ricciardi and Demos have argued that their series is meant to point to greater flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, but it's not surprising many viewers have found themselves consumed with the specifics of the case, whether they're playing amateur detective on Reddit or fixating on defense attorney Dean Strang's dad jeans.

The era of what the FX network's Jon Landgraf called "Peak TV" has been surprisingly unkind to reality TV, as warhorses like American Idol are winding down, and newcomers failing to capture the cultural conversation. David Wilson, a co-founder of the documentary-focused True/False Film Festival, believes documentary series may be poised to take its place. "I look at the things that people are appreciating and the way people are watching," he says, "and I feel like everything is poised for there to be great episodic nonfiction. It just feels like the floodgates are ready to burst open."

"Crime has always been a staple of television, but I've never been approached more by the networks. 'I want Serial, but with X,Y, and Z.' 'We want the next Jinx.'"—Joe Berlinger

Although Making a Murderer is fairly conservative in terms of form, it does seem, purposefully or not, tailor-made for the binge-watching era. Where the gaps between The Jinx's episodes gave rise to endless arguments about Robert Durst's guilt — and then, after its shocking last-act reveal, about whether he'd get away with it — Making a Murderer states its thesis up front. It never wavers from its conviction that the Manitowoc County police were out to get Steven Avery, and there's no real question how the series will end (the title itself is a spoiler). But unraveling the details of how Avery, and especially his nephew, Brendan Dassey, a socially awkward 16-year-old whose IQ puts him at the legal threshold for mental retardation, ended up behind bars exerts a mounting fascination that quickly becomes an obsession. When Avery is unjustly imprisoned for 18 years, and then exonerated in the second episode, the remaining eight hours loom like a dreadful promise. "Play next episode?" Hell yes. 

Although Making a Murderer was released in its entirety on December 18 (the same day a plucky little film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in theaters), its popularity took weeks to grow; Google searches for the title didn't peak until January 5th. In a sense, it enjoyed the best of both worlds: instant availability coupled with organic growth that allowed untold numbers of viewers the ability to feel like they'd discovered it for themselves. And with 30 years of media coverage available online, there was no reason for them to stop pursuing the story once the series was over. Documentaries may not have the budgets of TV's scripted successes, but they have the built-in advantage of drawing from material that doesn't run out the instant the writers' room goes dark.

Making a Murderer's runaway success has brought the series attention well outside the small circle of dedicated documentary viewers, and with it questions about whether Ricciardi and Demos are filmmakers or advocates, documentarians or journalists. "Documentary filmmaking is its own unique form," Berlinger says. "It's journalistic but it isn't purely journalism. It's storytelling, but it's not pure storytelling, because you can't veer from the truth, whatever that means."

Berlinger knows that tension first-hand: While he and Sinofsky quickly came to the conclusion that the three teenage boys accused of a brutal murder were innocent, they labored to keep Paradise Lost noncommittal, suggesting mainly that they had not received a fair trial. But as the film sparked a grass-roots movement to free what became known as the West Memphis Three, he and Sinofsky began to sense that their efforts were not sufficient. "It was not a completely fulfilling feeling," he admits, "and it drove us to continue to want to make these films." They ended up making two sequels over the next 15 years, which were instrumental in securing the WM3's release from prison in 2011.

Making a Murderer covers a greater span of time and lasts longer than all three Paradise Lost films combined, and so far it's spawned a slew of media coverage and even a petition for the White House to pardon Avery and Dassey. (The president can only only pardon federal prisoners, but it's the thought that counts.) But can a single series, released in a single shot, hold the public's attention long enough to spur meaningful action, let alone broader reform? Justice doesn't come on-demand. Systemic change can't be binge-watched.