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Was it the dismal life that Steven Avery led? Was it the way prosecutor Ken Kratz perspired through his cross-examination?
Experts have a theory as to why Making a Murderer — Netflix’s 10-part docuseries about a Wisconsin man who was convicted in 2007 for killing photographer Teresa Halbach — continues to hit such a nerve with viewers.
“[These programs] reflect the rather dim and dark world we seem to live in,” opines Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Terrorism, inefficient government, crime waves, sluggish economy, and so forth are affecting the national mood. These crime stories fit into the national attitude at this time to reaffirm what audiences are feeling.”
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The production value of movies like HBO’s Jinx and the breakout podcast Serial also a play a major role in engaging today’s armchair detectives. Says University of Nebraska, Lincoln Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, “The old formats of Dateline and other true crime dramas are outdated … old newsreel footage of crimes, clumsy recreations, a narrator taking the viewer through the crime. So the whole thing seems distant, a piece of history, not taking place in real life.”
“With Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer, the viewer is plunged into the real-life violence and fear that surrounds the events, and brought uncomfortably close to murders, rapes, and other horrific crimes,” continues Dixon. “The ‘it could happen to you’ aspect of these new shows, which are so firmly rooted in real life, makes viewing them, particularly in these trying times, a sort of escapist activity — so the viewer thinks, ‘This is happening to someone else, but it’s not happening to me,’ though it could. So the viewer can participate more directly in a real-life crime case, perhaps even identifying vicariously with the perpetrator, but without any real risk, safe in their armchair, viewing it on the tube.”
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly #1399. For more on the true-crime trend, pick up the issue on stands now, or available for purchase here.