Released in its entirety on Netflix on December 18th, 2015, the 10-episode long crime documentary, Making a Murderer – directed by Columbia University film graduates Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos – quickly became the ‘must see’ global TV hit of Christmas and the New Year. It spread a kind of true crime fever amongst viewers who took with gusto to social media to discuss it. Indeed, with MAM, a whole new breed of transnational digital detectives (debating the case and sifting through evidence on Reddit, and nascent social activists (signing online petitions and demanding justice) has emerged.
As someone who is in the midst of writing a book called Capturing Crime in the Digital Age, which explores the rise of the true crime documentary to mainstream cultural prominence in the digital era, I have watched the explosion of interest in MAM with some excitement. Suddenly, neighbours, friends, and parents at the school gate, share my interest in crime documentaries and are queuing to borrow my DVD of The Staircase (Lestrade, France/UK, 2004), the true crime documentary about North Carolina writer Michael Peterson’s trial for the murder of his wife, in order to get their next fix. No doubt about it: the once disdained subgenre of true crime is now culturally credible; or, as The New York Times puts it: ‘the serious long-form true-crime documentary is the glam genre of the moment’.
And yet, as aficionados of the true crime genre will know, Making a Murderer is not exactly new. Although it has been much compared to Andrew Jarecki’s recent HBO series The Jinx and Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, both of which, it has to be said, are rather more ‘glam’ than the rather grueling and at times plodding MAM, there is in fact a much longer tradition of crime documentaries out of which MAMemerges, from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (US, 1988) to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s landmark HBO Paradise Lost trilogy (US, 1996, 2000, 2011).
What is undeniably new, of course, is the viewing context of Netflix and the much bandied about term of the moment: ‘binge-watching’. With the crime documentary, TV streaming culture has arguably found its exemplary text. Indeed, it is no coincidence that there has been a burgeoning of the real crime documentary subgenre since 2000; it is a subgenre that, more than any other perhaps, lends itself to the participatory and interactive viewership of the digital era. Crime docs such as Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, US, 2003) for example, include an array of evidentiary materials for viewers to sift through on an interactive DVD; others such as Serial, include various documents on their websites to foster and extend audience interest and to encourage viewers to become ‘armchair detectives’. This is what television scholar Jason Mittell refers to in his recent book Complex TV as ‘forensic fandom’, a ‘new mode of viewer engagement’ that encourages ‘fans to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling’ (2015: 288). Although Mittell is talking about complex television in general, and not referring to crime TV per se, it is nonetheless revealing that his model of spectatorship derives from crime scene forensics, and revolves around the idea of ‘drilling’ down, to ‘discover something that is already there, buried beneath the surface’ (ibid.: 288).
At the heart of the enthusiasm over MAM lies its invitation to the viewer to assume the position of a juror. Certainly, Carol Clover’s assertion that the fictional courtroom drama/trial movie positions ‘us not as passive spectators but as active ones, viewers with a job to do’ (2000: 246) is even more apposite to the true crime documentary. But the question needs to be asked: if crime documentaries are increasingly stepping in where the law failed, making use of all the complex and immersive aesthetic devices at their disposal to offer a new way of capturing crime, then what is the (ethical) nature of the job we are being asked to do?
The question of the affective/emotional labour we are being invited to perform in relation to MAM is, for me, one of the most compelling questions raised by its success. To “binge-watch” the 10 episodes of MAM, which are of varying lengths from 47 minutes to just over an hour, is to experience a range of affects and emotions; I found the filmed interrogation scenes of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s then 16 year old nephew, deeply agonising to watch. They appear as painful examples of coerced false confession from a vulnerable minor as explored in other recent crime documentaries such as Paradise Lost and Scenes of a Crime (Babcock/Hadaegh, US, 2011). When MAM moves on to Steven Avery’s trial, and the two charming defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, it therefore comes as a satisfying relief. It’s enjoyable to watch these men, with their steady Atticus Finch style intelligence, getting into the full flow of their defense and calling the police to account for their tunnel vision. Just as Strang and Buting have now become internet heart throbs, and have been inundated with declarations of affection from Netflix viewers, so prosecuting attorney Ken Kratz and Brendan Dassey defense attorney Len Kachinsky have become hate figures, and have had their business Yelp pages bombarded with bad reviews. This is the affective culture of ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ that we have become so accustomed to in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Such affective networks are constructing new frameworks for responding to real crime stories and, as Jennifer Petersen has argued, the pressing issue is what such ‘public displays of affect’ enable – or disable – as the case may be (2011: 165).
While it may be an overstatement to assert that ‘cold-blooded killers are using Netflix to scam their way out of jail’, as American legal commentator, TV presenter and victim rights advocate Nancy Grace has recently claimed in a thundering denouncement of ‘that Netflix documentary’:
There are nonetheless provocative discussions to be had about the affective imbrication of TV, social media, crime and the law that is currently happening.
Indeed, the story of Teresa Halbach, the 25 year-old murder victim, is something that problematically goes missing amidst the groundswell of emotion MAM creates around the issues of poverty and social injustice. That the documentary cannot seem to find a way of talking about the female victim’s story – even as it includes de-contextualized and rather lurid video footage of Halbach discussing how she would feel if she were to suddenly die – raises concerns about the stakes of our affective capture in its televisual true crime grip
Tanya Horeck is a Reader in Film, Media & Culture at Anglia Ruskin University. She is author of the book Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film (Routledge 2004) and the co-editor of two anthologies, The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe (University of Edinburgh Press 2011) and Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond (Palgrave MacMillan 2013). Currently, she is working on a book, Capturing Crime in the Digital Age (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press).