A decade in the making, the series, by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, chronicles the story of Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County, WI. In 1985, he was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder and served 18 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Upon his release he filed a $36 million civil suit against the county. Two years later, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-0ld photographer for Autotrader magazine. Avery was convicted of killing Halbach and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ricciardi and Demos were inspired to tell Avery's story after reading about his 2005 arrest for Halbach's murder.
The docu-series brought us a set of now familiar high-production tropes in the true crime world: drone shots of the salvage yard and desolate highway, a theme song heavy on the bass and mournful strings, and an in medias res introduction to the story. These techniques created an immersive and bingeable watching experience. Making a Murderer is, above all else, captivating television.
The techniques were powerful and distinctive enough to have inspired a number of imitators. Perhaps the most successful was Netflix's American Vandal, which took on the tone and construction of a true crime documentaries, borrowing heavily from Making a Murderer and The Jinx to deliver a pitch-perfect, skewering parody that was also entertaining. It showed that the high stakes of a wrongful conviction can be applied to ridiculous premise, like asking who drew those dicks, given the right amount of atmosphere and suspenseful editing.
For all of the insight that season 1 of Making a Murderer gave us about our flawed justice system, our stratified class system, and our societal attitude towards violence, it didn't do the one thing its creators said they meant to do: deliver an impartial accounting of an American murder trial. Far from being given a glimpse into the way trials work beyond headlines and hearsay, season 1 presented a biased depiction that was so hopelessly slanted in Avery's favor that it wound up undermining what should have been the most fascinating issues of the case and trial.
Among the facts that Ricciardi and Demos left out were Avery's past convictions for violent crimes, including an incident in which he held a female cousin at gunpoint. Also underplayed is Avery's relationship to Halbach before the murder (she had described him in previous encounters as creepy and on the day of her disappearance he had requested her by name to photograph his car). The DNA belonging to Avery discovered on the hood latch of Halbach's car came not from blood but instead from epithelial cells (sweat, skin, or saliva) that would be nearly impossible to plant.
Perhaps most disturbingly, particularly given his pivotal role in the case and his positioning as the show's most tragic figure, Avery's teenage cousin Brendan Dassey previously made admissions that his uncle inappropriately touched him.
None of these facts on their own wholly discredit Avery's claim of innocence, but they do give insight into the realities of how murder cases are tried and shows the prosecutor's point of view. They would have helped provide a holistic view of a fascinating case and given the reader context to question the value of guilt and innocence in our criminal justice system.
Is it possible his 13 years in prison actually turned Steven Avery into a sexually sadistic killer? Where does law enforcement draw the line between securing a case and deliberately mishandling evidence? And on the question of false confessions: have so many people ever witnessed an aggressive interrogation and its aftermath in the devastating detail of Dassey's?
Addressing any of these questions on their own would have made for a stunning interrogation of criminal justice. But rather than present the case objectively, the filmmakers omitted facts in order to keep access to Avery and to present a simplified storyline. They were so successful in this effort that more than viewers started a petition asking President Barack Obama to grant Avery and Dassey new trials. Of course, they were tried by the state of Wisconsin and therefore the federal government would have no jurisdiction to ask for a new trial, but that didn't stop 130,000 people from signing.
Netflix has stated that season 2 of Making a Murderer will focus on the post-conviction process for Dassey and Avery. The filmmakers have repeatedly denied any accusations of bias in the first season, and it's clear they have the gift of deep empathy and the ability to create a riveting narrative. If season 2 can capitalize on those strengths while also committing to sharing an unvarnished portrayal of the facts, it has the potential to be among the best examples of its genre. But first it will need to right its original wrongs, which will force it to become a very different show.