What makes a true-crime story “true”? Critics have been asking that question ever since the genre was reinvigorated by the hit podcast Serial and HBO’s docuseries The Jinx, two series that played with new forms of narrative nonfiction and broke some rules of objective reporting. In their first seasons, both series reopened cold cases, relying on cliff-hangers or stylized re-creations of traumatic events, often burying the lead for the sake of suspense. Both reflected the storytelling techniques of scripted drama more than the arc of real life, sparking debates about what’s good for justice versus what’s good for entertainment. Such arguments will no doubt be revived once true-crime fans have binged Netflix’s docuseries Making a Murderer (streaming now), which focuses on the strange case of Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being freed by DNA evidence—only to become the prime suspect in a brutal murder. Judging by the first four episodes, though, it’s not only a gripping true-crime story, it’s also the most moral one I’ve seen in a long time.
Despite comparisons to Serial and The Jinx, Making a Murderer is actually a more conventional hard-news documentary, made in the tradition of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s films about the West Memphis Three. Avery is a poor, uneducated misfit from a small Midwestern town who was celebrated as a hero for changing the criminal-justice system (legislators passed the Avery Bill in his honor, to prevent wrongful convictions) before being recast as a pariah. Without spoiling anything, it’s fair to say that the twists and turns are so surprising, they might seem scripted if they weren’t presented in such a clear, chronological order, supported by exhaustively researched evidence and archival footage that must be seen to be believed. My sense of outrage about what happened in Avery’s trials increased with every episode. The series is a chilling reminder that it’s sometimes more effective for journalists rather than law enforcement to access information about things like evidence tampering or witness coercion—either because that information is somehow not as readily available to law enforcement or because some officials intentionally ignore the misconduct of their co-workers and friends.
Having spent the past decade following Avery, directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos maintain a critical distance, refusing to cast themselves as major players in the story, and Making a Murderer is a more thoughtful project for that choice. What emerges isn’t just another Serial-inspired meditation on the unreliability of memory or the nature of subjectivity. It’s a scathing indictment of police misconduct and a righteous demand for criminal-justice reform. It might be great entertainment, but you can feel good about watching it. A