Netflix is getting into the true crime game with Making a Murderer, its gripping 10-part documentary series that premieres Friday. And the timing couldn't be better. It's riveting stuff, perfect for binge-watching over the holiday break. You'll be hooked by the end of Episode 3.
Following in the footsteps of HBO's The Jinx and the NPR podcast Serial, Making a Murderer examines one case in extraordinary depth - here, it's the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who is currently serving a life sentence for a murder he may not have committed. Avery's family maintains that he was set up by local police, who have had a vendetta against him since the 1980s.
The backstory: In 1985, under questionable logic and a complete lack of physical evidence, Avery (who had prior arrests for minor, nonviolent offenses) was arrested and convicted of raping a prominent local woman. After serving 18 years of his sentence, Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence and freed in 2003. As he subsequently tried to get his life back together (following, among other things, a divorce while he was in prison), Avery also began mounting a lawsuit against local officials including the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office.
Just as a civil suit was about to be filed in 2005, potentially awarding Avery millions of dollars, he was arrested again - for the murder of Theresa Halbach, a professional acquaintance who was last seen on Avery's property.
Unlike with Serial, the series leaves little ambiguity as to Avery's innocence (at least based on the four episodes that were made available to critics in advance). Despite a few eyebrow-raising twists and turns, the focus is less on whether Avery actually committed the crime, and more on creating a condemning narrative of the mind-blowing actions taken by members of the local government over the course of their investigation.
Perhaps most unbelievable - were it not for the knowledge that we're watching actual footage - are scenes that feature Avery's 16-year-old nephew, Brendan, and [mild spoiler alert] his taped confession about helping Avery rape, torture and eventually kill Halbach. Anyone who is skeptical about the prevalence of false confessions in the modern justice system needs only watch Brendan's conversations with detectives (without his mother or an attorney present) to see how easily they are obtained.
Though the sheriff's department's alleged bias against Steven Avery is not rooted in race, the series feels especially timely in light of recent police brutality and corruption cases in places like New York and Chicago. But these events are occurring in small-town Wisconsin, with no national media coverage to give the Averys' cries of corruption any credence. One gets the chilling sense that what happened to Steven Avery happens every day to people across America - only not everyone gets a documentary made about it.
Making a Murderer paints the Averys as a family whose members were always outsiders in the community, due to poverty and a lack of education. And, to be sure, these are not a made-for-TV bunch. A throwaway line in one episode references the fact that Avery doesn't own a single pair of underwear. These are salt-of-the-earth folks from rural Wisconsin, with thick accents and a dubious grasp of the English language (a phone conversation between Brendan and his mother reveals that neither knows what "inconsistent" means). But all that information only drives home the point that Avery was an easy target for police.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have spent more than a decade tracking the case, since Avery was re-arrested in 2005. And they have certainly not been sleeping on the job - the breadth of interviews, court documents, at-home footage, recorded jail calls, is incredible. (Between this and Spotlight, longform journalism is truly having a moment in 2015.)
Netflix has proven that it can excel with fiction, but Making a Murderer's biggest achievement is that it's just as entertaining as Marvel's Jessica Jones or Orange is the New Black. The series repeatedly brings you to the edge of your seat and holds you there, eyes glued to the screen. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, it's also more maddening.
Watch the trailer for Making a Murderer here:
All 10 episodes of Making a Murderer will be available Friday on Netflix. Will you watch?