Over the last year, true crime has made a thundering return to the proverbial water cooler. A genre previously dominated by sensationalized TV news programs like NBC’s Dateline has found new life in streaming form–and as documentaries. Instead of taking on a new murder every week, this new family of programs focuses on one case over several episodes. Serial, a WBEZ podcast, wildly popularized the approach in 2014, leaving millions of listeners waiting for the next download to drop, all to find out if a Maryland teenager could have killed his ex-girlfriend in 1999. HBO quickly followed with success if it’s own in serial form, airing and streaming the episodic documentary The Jinx. Now Netflix’s Making a Murderer takes up the baton for these documentaries told piece by piece. But, as the public binges on this content, the themes or arguments of their creators risk being lost in the clamor. The blunt approach of major news outlets can obliterate the nuance filmmakers craft into their work, reducing the work to the simple question of guilty or not guilty.
As proof of this, let’s consider Making a Murderer. News outlets hoping to capitalize on the fervor have churned out seemingly countless articles about evidence in the case. ABC’s Dan Abrams has flatly argued Steven Avery, the series’ subject is “absolutely guilty.” An opposing camp arguing Avery is innocent has misguidedly petitioned the president to pardon him, gathering more than 400 thousand signatures in the process. By fixating on Avery’s guilt, these two sides miss the central questions the series raises about the presumption of innocence and flaws in the judicial system. In fact, Moira Demos, one of the filmmakers behind Making a Murderer, told CNN’s Brian Stelter the question of Avery’s guilt, “was really of no consequence.”
In interviews, Demos and her filmmaking partner Laura Ricciardi have stressed their interest was in making viewers question the judicial process that led Avery and his cousin Brendan Dassey to be imprisoned for life. Similarly, Serial host and producer Sarah Koenig told NPR’s Terry Gross she set out, “to report this story,” not to exonerate Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. In doing her reporting, Koenig also raised questions about the judicial system and Syed’s conviction, but she didn’t come to any conclusions about his guilt.
When Serial ended, it left open-ended any hard reporting on whether Syed committed the murder for which he was convicted, offering instead Koenig’s personal take on the case. A New York Post column called it “unsatisfying.” The Poynter Institute catalogued what it called the Internet’s “collective shriek,” at the lack of a neat conclusion. Such reaction speaks to the public’s desire for conventional narrative: for stories—especially “mysteries”–to have proper endings. That structure is something real life doesn’t always provide, and by extension, something documentaries can’t always provide either. In fiction, writers can tell the readers what happens and can invent a truth, a victim and a perpetrator. In the cases Serial and Making a Murderer document, the journalists can’t do that. They have to rely on their own investigative ability, and the judicial system responsible for piecing together what happened, who did what. That doesn’t satisfy the popular desire for things to be clear cut, a desire that can hijack the truth journalists hope to convey.
Filmmakers can’t control the reaction to their work. Their interest is primarily in telling a story, and while getting people to listen is a crucial part of that, mainstream success often isn’t. The same can’t be said for the increasing number of content providers like Netflix or Amazon, which aim for as much exposure as possible. The approach of episodic true crime documentaries seems to be a winning formula, and it wouldn’t be surprising if more debut in the coming year. That might offer an opportunity for filmmakers who are interested in the true crime genre. Still, it should be tempered by the reality that mainstream success can mean the story they set out to tell isn’t the one people are interested in talking about.