If You’re Not Watching ‘Making A Murderer,’ You Should Be

From true crime to class divide, Netflix's documentary series hits its marks

No, really. Watch it.
Jan 11, 2016 at 4:39 PM ET

With a cast that numbers in the dozens, from police to private citizens to lab technicians to victims of horrific crime, there are moments in the Netflix original documentary “Making a Murderer” that take your breath away. Sometimes it’s a seemingly innocuous confession on the witness stand that is actually significant given the greater context that the show provides. Perhaps it’s an old VHS home movie that seems banal one second and weirdly prescient the next.

Like a taut magazine-style narrative, the 10-episode series takes constant detours that can leave you slack-jawed and stunned on your couch. Then it makes you alternately angry and confused that this sequence of events was ever allowed to occur, back and forth, rinse and repeat.

By series’ end, you’re numbed, feeling like you’ve endured–survived?–a brutal wash cycle of incredulity and disappointment following the story of main character Steven Avery, who was convicted of rape in 1985, served 18 years in prison, was exonerated by DNA evidence and released in 2003, and subsequently arrested in 2005 under some pretty suspicious circumstances. Like the best true crime storytelling, “Making a Murderer” leaves you wanting to affect some kind of change in the world.

That said, it’s not perfect. If you’re expecting the stylish production values of its closest comps, HBO’s “The Jinx” and This American Life’s “Serial,” readjust your expectations now. There are no stylized flourishes where past crimes are reenacted, no dramatic cold calls where you don’t know if the other end will actually pick up. (The main theme was written by an Oscar-winning composer, for what it’s worth.) And it’s very much couched in a single point-of-view, that of Steven Avery, his family and various defense teams.

But let me be clear: You should watch this series. The overarching reason to watch isn’t to engage in water-cooler talk or discuss alternate theories on Reddit or look cool and informed on Twitter (as if that’s remotely possible, anyway). It is to willingly recognize there’s a subset of people out there with an extreme set of relatable problems. Poverty, and the powerlessness it breeds, is something that has affected–or yet still could affect–almost all of us. And strictly in terms of a true crime story, it’s more riveting than just about any Hollywood production.

On a narrative level, all the tension and anger and shock these themes engender time and again ultimately make for a wildly compelling watching experience. What “Making a Murderer” excels is at convincing you this is a formulaic trial where everything is laid out and expected and then blindsiding you when logic seemingly becomes a forgotten virtue. It doesn’t prey on our fears that circumstances can lead someone to a life of crime, but rather the more irrational part of our psyche that whispers, “That couldn’t possibly happen to me … could it?”

But ultimately, it was the quieter moments that left the biggest impressions. Take, for example, the collection of recorded jailhouse phone calls made by main character Steven Avery. Often serving as transition between scenes and serving as the soundtrack for B-roll footage of snowy, coastal Wisconsin, where this all takes place, Avery’s calls with family members and the show’s creators are coated with emotion, at times optimistic but usually defeatist, conveying the slight glimmer of for his future. They’re arguably the most critical component of the show.

In addition to the conversations, the series — created, shot, and edited by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi over the span of a decade — relies on two other sources for most of its footage. One is archived video from both of the trials, forming the narrative thread of the series. Another are the in-person interviews with nearly all the principal players, a technique that also gives the whole affair a vérité feeling sorely missing from “The Jinx” and “Serial.” Unlike both of those efforts, which bring people straight into the middle of true crime mysteries gone awry, Demos and Ricciardi are otherwise ghosts in their show. You never see them, hear them, or otherwise sense their effect on what’s occurring. The result is something like a therapy session, gaining an unfiltered view into the lives of those affected, and their real-time emotions.

You see this especially with Avery’s family. Owners of a large auto salvage yard, they are not wealthy, nor are they particularly educated people. But you see them have to accept this reality, cognizant of the cards being played against them. At one point in the third episode, Avery says to a family member, “Poor people lose all the time.”

That’s a profound reality to be facing, but it really forms the moral backbone of “Making a Murderer.” It’s certainly not about race. (I believe every single person featured in this series, perhaps save one or two, is white? This is, after all, eastern Wisconsin we’re talking about.) It’s somewhat about wealth, as Avery says, but not this never really comes off as a fight between rich and poor. For me, when Avery says “poor,” I define it as “powerless.” This is about coordinated abuses of power by local police, how a family of disadvantaged means has little recourse to fight back in such situations, and how the legal system can be unjustly rigged against those accused (and then usually convicted) of a crime.

The inherent downside to “Murderer”’s mass appeal is that if you wait long enough, the whole exercise might start to feel like broccoli, being forced by external pressures to consume something you know will be good for you but fear won’t live up to the hype. But where “Murderer” could feel preachy, the lessons here are left to simmer, for viewers to absorb at their own pace. You’ll know this feeling when you watch. Maybe it happens with episode 4 or episode 9 or somewhere in between, but the magnitude of these real-life events will smack you in the face at some point. And knowing it’s coming doesn’t lessen the effect.

The very last spoken line of the series is simply this: “The truth always comes out … sooner or later.” Maybe yes, maybe no. What “Making a Murderer” forces viewers to confront is that if your relative class status is low enough and the opinion of the local police isn’t necessarily in your favor, the truth may not matter. And at a time in our country when police are seemingly abusing their authority more than ever before, that’s a powerful and important message to put forth.