Think back to the 2003 “pizza bomber” incident, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably the footage of a man sitting handcuffed next to a car, slightly blurry from a camera’s long zoom. He had a device around his neck, and seemed to be getting increasingly agitated. So, for that matter, were the Erie, Pennsylvania, police, who cautiously kept their distance, not yet knowing if it was some kind of hoax. Then the device exploded, and in an instant, 46-year-old pizza deliveryman Brian Wells was dead. That was just the start of a twisted case that would also involve a scavenger hunt, two more corpses, a separate murder-for-hire plot and a deranged woman who may or may not have been pulling the strings.
Twists, turns, a stranger-than-fiction tale of homicides and bizarre human behavior – those are the building blocks for Evil Genius, Netflix’s four-episode case study of a bank heist that turned into a tabloid home run. And it’s the perfect story for one of the streaming service’s true-crime deep-dives, an increasingly buzzy subgenre that combines the rigor of magazine journalism with the artistic eye of an Errol Morris documentary. Since launching Making a Murderer in 2015, Netflix has made the format a cornerstone of its original programming – building up a library that now includes critical and popular successes such as The Keepers and Wild Wild Country. These are not Dateline-style, torn-from-the-headlines recaps. They are nuanced and confident multisided portraits of everything from institutional cover-ups to sex cults, fueled by a desire to understand the stories beneath ugly crimes, no matter how long it takes.
It would be disingenuous, of course, to ignore the fact that viewers are attracted to these stories for base-level reasons, too. Evil Genius begins with that shocking, caught-on-camera death, and shows it without warning. Making a Murderer is ultimately about overzealous prosecution and the reality of false confessions – but it starts with gruesome death, sexual assault and the politics of small-town America. Wild Wild Country, about an Indian guru and his followers who attempted to build their own city in Oregon, concerns itself with prejudice and the othering of foreigners. It’s also filled with orgies, drugs, guns, bombs and massive amounts of money – a true-crime bingo card with very few spaces left blank.
And perhaps most important to their success, these docuseries’ chosen subjects are extraordinary. They’re the kinds of cases – often unsolved, frequently morally unresolved – that get people fired up, opinionated, ready to proselytize for the series themselves. To have not watched Making a Murderer in its first few weeks was to be left out of the cultural conversation, despite the show having had little in the way of advance buzz or even marketing. A cynic might assume it had been buried in its release schedule, considering it was launched right before Christmas – a time of year when people not only have less time to watch TV, but also, presumably, less desire to watch something so dark.
In fact, Lisa Nishimura, the Netflix executive responsible for the company’s documentary strategy, thought the show’s popularity might just be regional – it takes place in Wisconsin – but quickly saw the audience “growing exponentially for the days, weeks and months after the release.” A Reddit group was launched before the show even
aired, and quickly had tens of thousands of subscribers ready to debate potential suspects and pore over each piece of evidence. Vociferous arguments about accused killer
Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence continue there to this day.
By January 2016, no self-respecting pop-culture publication was without a hot take or takedown, from “How Making a Murderer Went Wrong“ (The New Yorker) to “10 Most Shocking Moments From Making a Murderer” (Salon) to the inevitable story about all the other stories, “How the Netflix original Making a Murderer gripped
the Internet.” Critics didn’t just love writing about the series, they loved the show: It has a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Plus, the noise generated about the case by the 10-episode series eventually attracted the attention of Kathleen Zellner, a lawyer who specializes in wrongful convictions; she continues to work on Steven Avery’s case. Netflix quickly understood that it didn’t have a hit on its hands so much as a cultural phenomenon. And once the format had proved to be both binge-friendly and able to attract a bigger-than-usual audience, the service set about colonizing that area of niche programming as much as it could.
You can trace the genesis of these types of series all the way back to Truman Capote’s 1966 classic In Cold Blood, which chronicled a murder in small-town Kansas and detailed the subsequent aftermath with the narrative momentum of a fictional bestseller. (It was dubbed the first “non-fiction novel.”) Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 1988 movie The Thin Blue Line revolutionized the notion that you could add stylistic flourishes to journalistic bona fides, covering the murder of a Dallas police officer and the subsequent incarceration of an innocent man with borderline avant-garde “re-creations” and a Philip Glass score. (His own longform series Wormwood, a surreal look at a military scientist who died in 1953 and involves the C.I.A., mind control, murder cover-ups and LSD, hit the streaming service this past December.)
Other networks had also previously staked claims in longform true-crime territory as well: HBO aired the first of three Paradise Lost docs on the “West Memphis Three” case in 1996, and would premiere their Robert Durst exposé The Jinx several months before Netflix dropped Making a Murderer into subscribers’ laps. And few things whetted the popular appetite more for modern multi-part true-crime series than Serial, the podcast phenom of early 2015 that followed host Sarah Koenig as she delved into a Baltimore high-school student’s murder. HBO, in fact, just announced that it’s producing a new series that catches up with the original Serial case since the podcast first aired.
But if Netflix owes a debt to anything, it’s The Staircase. The Rosetta stone of modern multi-part crime explorations, Jean Xavier de Lestrade’s docuseries began airing on French TV and covers the 2001 murder of American philanthropist Kathleen Peterson. After diving in to the circumstances surrounding her demise – she was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in her house in North Carolina, having apparently fallen after consuming alcohol and prescription drugs – it then follows the subsequent trial of the primary suspect, her husband Michael Peterson. What appears to be a simple case of spousal murder, however, turns into a searing head-scratcher. From episode to episode, Peterson’s guilt goes from certain to highly doubtful and back, with the ultimate question being: If he didn’t do it, who did? (Wait until you hear about the owl theory.)
Those who saw the show when it aired in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel in 2005 – and de Lestrade’s subsequent follow-up in 2013 – were taking notes. “There were not many distribution forms for a longform nonfiction series that was all one story, told over the course of several episodes,” Moira Demos, co-director of Making a Murderer, told Business Insider. “We had one example of The Staircase … and we held onto that model for dear life.”
So it should come as no shock that Netflix will air three new episodes of The Staircase this summer, alongside the original series and, in a full-circle manner, will help bring the fascinating story to a close. To see how this original longform exploration fits next to the series that have sprung in its wake is also to see why they tend to work better than the magazine shows that have typically covered these types of lurid crimes. This more nuanced breed? They invite speculation and discussion by pulling at the threads of a mystery rather than defining and/or vilifying its subjects. They benefit from the Netflix model, which has allowed viewers to chart a case in either parceled-out chapters or, thanks to the service’s tendency to dump full seasons in a single bound, to inhale it as one continuous stem-to-stern investigation. They have a tendency to treat the sensationalistic material with a narrative seriousness that’s often missing from the tabloid-style shows. “There’s a lot of true crime content out there, right?” Nishimura told Business Insider. “What made [Making a Murderer] compelling and interesting and for me … was that commitment to the level of storytelling.”
And they allow for viewers to get to know the players in these complex stories, and gives them the chance to understand their motivations rather than simply condemn their actions. So the highly intelligent, maniacally manipulative woman at the center of Evil Genius, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, might appear to be the devil incarnate – but the series also tries to humanize her by revealing her history of mental illness. It resists the urge to cast her as a sinister, cackling villain, even as her actions seem more and more unhinged. Her instability led to extreme behavior, but in her interactions with police and the filmmakers – producer Trey Borzillieri traded letters and phone calls with her for years – an acknowledgment of her instability peeks through. Even Wild Wild Country‘s charismatic villain, Ma Anand Sheela, gets plenty of room to tell her story.
Making a Murderer began filming 10 years before its release, and it stretches over 10 hours; more episodes are filming now. Wild Wild Country spans decades, continents and social classes; two of its primary interview subjects have solidly opposing viewpoints. The Staircase, over many years, gets inside the mind of a man who, though strange, might not actually be a killer. Depending on how they’re tackled, these cases could end up feeling like anything from airport-read quick-hits to engrossing novels, and Netflix is clearly interested in aiming for the latter. With their grabby, nuanced, empathetic takes, these shows engage hungry, smart viewers who want more than just the surface-level facts, and more than a homicide of the week.
Less than three years after Making a Murderer hit cultural critical mass, Netflix has positioned itself to dominate the world of these epic true-crime series; they’ve been so successful that they have been able to run a pitch-perfect parody of the genre via American Vandal, a longform mockumentary that subjects a high-school expulsion due to dick-graffiti to the same rigorous procedural-verité format. (Like Making a Murderer, it’s also been renewed for a second season.) But by covering the provocative stories that human nature demands people pay attention to – murder, money, sex, insanity, injustice – and mitigating the salaciousness with complex, smart storytelling, the service is proving that you can serve up investigative journalism as bingeable entertainment (and vice versa). It’s a not-so-evil, kind-of genius strategy. And it’s definitely working.