Following the success of the “Serial” podcast and HBO’s similarly engrossing series “The Jinx,” it only makes sense that Netflix would jump into the true-crime mix.
The streaming service does so this week with “Making a Murderer,” a documentary series that makes for a gripping and unsettling 10-hour binge. (All 10 episodes are now available for streaming.) There’s a haunting suspense that permeates the series. You don’t have to wait a week to find out what happens next, and you won’t want to.
At the center of “Making a Murderer” is Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for a violent sexual assault he didn’t commit. Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence and released from prison in 2003. Two years later, as he was pursuing civil lawsuits against the county and officials who had wrongly convicted him, Avery was arrested for the murder of a young photographer named Teresa Halbach.
There’s a lot to unravel: class issues (“Poor people lose all the time,” Avery tells his family after his 2005 arrest); police incompetence at best, corruption and coverups at worst; and the ever- present question of whether Avery is, in fact, a killer.
It’s an unusual, almost unbelievable, story that sets “Making a Murderer” apart from its predecessors. Both “Serial” and “The Jinx” relied heavily on charismatic subjects who may or may not have committed extremely violent, but not altogether uncommon, crimes.
Avery isn’t charismatic in the traditional sense. He’s quickly established as a pariah in his small home county of Manitowoc. Early on, there’s a close-up of a sign for Avery Road – where his family lives and runs its auto salvage business – atop a Dead End post. He and his relatives often speak in stilted, grammatically incorrect language. When Avery’s 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey implicates himself in Halbach’s murder during a questionable interrogation, his family grows divided.
In one scene, Dassey, who has a learning disability, calls his mother (Avery’s sister) from the juvenile detention facility where he’s being held awaiting trial. They discuss a move by his lawyer to throw out statements Dassey made during his interrogation.
“What does inconsistent mean?” he asks his mother. “I don’t know exactly,” she replies.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos shot “Making a Murderer” over a decade-long period. They stay largely in the background of the documentary, telling the story through interviews and recorded telephone conversations with Avery’s relatives, friends, many lawyers and other key players in both the 1985 and 2005 cases.
Some of the most astounding revelations come from taped interrogations and depositions with county and law enforcement officials. All of this is juxtaposed with extensive news reports, local and national, about Avery’s exoneration and subsequent arrest.
“Making a Murderer” is at its best when it taps into our collective fascination with the grisly details of a story that may read like fiction, but isn’t. At one point, the documentary features footage of a producer from “Dateline” – a show that often takes deep dives into twisted crime stories – talking excitedly about the Halbach case, which she calls “the perfect ‘Dateline’ story.”
“It’s a story with a twist. It grabs people’s attention,” the producer says.
“Right now, murder is hot,” she adds. “That’s what everyone wants. That’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.”
Making a Murderer (10 episodes) is streaming on Netflix.