What Gets Lost When A Real Murder Becomes An Entertainment Craze

When does our fascination with true crime go too far?
The media surround Steven Avery after his release from prison after serving 18 years, having been convicted of rape. DNA evid
The media surround Steven Avery after his release from prison after serving 18 years, having been convicted of rape. DNA evidence cleared Avery of guilt.

If you had a few days off and an Internet connection toward the end of 2015, I wouldn't be surprised if you spent your time watching "Making a Murderer."

Netflix's 10-part documentary series follows the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after 18 years serving time for a rape he didn't commit before being accused of the murder of Auto Trader photographer Teresa Halbach just a few years later.

The show has attracted the same kind of frenzied discussion and national attention as the audio-only "Serial" did just about a year earlier with the murky case of Adnan Syed. 

It's fascinating to watch people go through the stages of consuming true crime, as I did myself: first, tentative interest, then a voracious need to watch without stopping, then the confused aftershock of realizing this kind of story, for all its engaging, salacious details (Rape and murder! Corrupt cops! Coerced confessions!), rarely ever ends tied in a neat bow.

What was my role, we wonder after watching the Netflix series, in logging 10 hours observing this specific man's precarious situation? We pore over the details, analyze the outcome, deal with the ensuing rage ... but to what avail?

I couldn't even wait until the end of the series to start looking for a prologue to the narrative presented by filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi. I hopped online and scrolled through passionate Reddit feeds debating whether or not Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey did it. I found a Facebook group offering support for the convicted. From there, I reached the Change.org petition calling for President Obama to release Avery and Dassey. I had a brief thought to add my name to the list -- here was something I could do to reverse the miscarriage of justice! 

Here's where the true crime fascination turns uncomfortable: when it moves from an educational, illuminating case study of how the justice system can fail average citizens to a wave of outcry -- both for and against our protagonist -- from viewers-turned-detectives. The hours logged with this case in mind gives us a sense of agency over it, in some weird way, creating the desire to speculate and gush over it the same way we do any other TV show. When given the chance to read whodunit "fan theories," I feel both the tug of "oooh, let's investigate," and the sobering reminder that fellow humans, and not easily drawn fictional heroes and villains, are at the heart of this. 

There's a reason we don't turn to comment sections or Twitter polls to determine whether a man is guilty of a crime. Plus, it feels a little disingenuous: what percentage of listeners who cried foul at Syed's grating lawyer and unexamined alibis is still following his story today? How many names on that Change.org petition merely needed a place to put the indignation earned from watching the series?

The same shrugging, well-I-don't-really-know feeling came again when reports started popping up in backlash to "Making a Murderer." Recent critiques have taken issue with the fact that the series appeared to want viewers to walk away thinking Avery and Dassey were unjustly imprisoned.

Everyone's least favorite prosecutor, Ken Kratz, was quick to claim to reporters that Demos and Ricciardi intentionally left out evidence that made Avery look culpable (claims that Avery's defense lawyers have discredited). A relatively unknown entertainment site, Pajiba, posted a lengthy list of possible omissions viewers weren't privy to in the docuseries that paints Avery in a darker light.

With unending Internet arguments on both sides, the only clear answer is: it's complicated. I'm not going to weigh evidence for and against here. I can only conclude with certainty that there is so much we don't know about Halbach's disappearance and death, and we likely never will, as much as we crave a resolution to this deeply sad tale.

This isn't to say the discussion and possible corruption raised and unearthed by journalistic investigations isn't valid, nor welcomed; only that we should add in a few grains of salt to our media consumption cocktail. Even the most balanced storytelling gets shades of bias from its authors, who need to turn the sometimes-bland truth of what happened into a compelling narrative. That narrative creation plays a part in why jury duty is widely known as a soul-deadening burden of citizenship while "Serial" broke podcast downloading records.

The huge rise in "steven avery" as a search term, compared to "teresa halbach."

"Making a Murderer" wouldn't be the hit it is today if it simply showed hundreds of hours of dry court testimony. It's easy to get swept up in the mystery of true crime until we remember the events on screen, well, truly did happen.

There's a sobering moment in the middle of the series where a reporter explains how TV audiences love a grisly crime, a moment when you, the viewer, realize you're just as intrusive as the microphone-wielding pantsuits that pester Avery's mother when it's clear she doesn't want to talk to them. It's a difficult place to stand as a viewer: craving more information, more drama, and remembering that when the cameras are turned off, what's left are two actual, broken families and a flawed justice system, and questions we don't have any easy answers to.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Jillian Capewell on Twitter: @jcapejcape

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