Bingeworthy Netflix docuseries tells a compelling story
NEW YORK >> "Making a Murderer" is the latest series to demand you not just watch, but binge.
But since its Netflix debut on Dec. 18, it's become even more encompassing: a Thing, a budding cultural phenomenon, whose subject is emerging as a painful cause celebre.
Few series pack a punch like this, and, further stoking your moral outrage, the tale this 10-hour docuseries tells is real.
"Making a Murderer" chronicles the hardship of Steven Avery, an otherwise obscure member of a salvage-yard family in Wisconsin's rural Manitowoc County.
It begins in 2003 with video of Avery returning home after 18 years' imprisonment for sexual assault, a crime of which he was belatedly exonerated thanks to DNA evidence proving him innocent.
A stubby overgrown elf with a bushy beard and a beaming smile, Avery, at 41, claims to have left any anger at this miscarriage of justice at the jailhouse door. Calling himself "the happiest man on Earth," he now is eager to resume normal life.
Early buzz for this series has spiked into a roar. Online petitions have sprung to life on Avery's behalf while passionate comments punctuate social media. A guessing game proposes who should play him in a feature film (among the candidates: Joshua Jackson and Zach Galifianakis). Even a "Making a Murderer" spoof by Seth Meyers kicked off a recent "Late Night."
The less you know about Avery's ordeal, the more you will be rocked by "Making a Murderer." Suffice it to say, the series depicts a systemic vendetta waged against him by police and the courts. And it heated up after his rape conviction was overturned.
Law enforcement "despised" him, one observer declares in the series' first moments. "Steven Avery was a shining example of their inadequacies, their misconduct."
And a member of Avery's family recalls her advice upon his release. "Be careful," she says she cautioned him. "They are not even close to being done with you."
Make no mistake, Steven Avery is no angel. As a teen, he had his scrapes with the law. "I was young and stupid," he acknowledges.
More problematic, he and his cousin Sandra Morris habitually quarreled. In early 1985, an altercation (Avery bumped her car with his) led to a criminal complaint lodged against him by Morris, who found a sympathetic ear: Her husband was a Manitowoc County Sheriff's Deputy.
"The Morris case gave them a chance to claim a violent felony had been committed by one of the Averies," says his court-appointed lawyer, "and, of course, the Sheriff's Department and the DA took it and ran."
Just a few months later, a prominent citizen was sexually assaulted while jogging on the beach. Despite witness alibis for Avery's whereabouts, an absence of physical evidence, and knowledge of a plausible suspect (who 18 years later would be convicted with the DNA evidence that won Avery his freedom), Avery was arrested.
"The sheriff told me, 'I got you now' when I got to jail," he recalls.
After his 2003 exoneration, Avery was a free man, but for just two years. He was then arrested for another crime — this time, a grisly rape and murder. So was his teenage nephew, Brendan Dassey, a few months later.
"Making a Murderer" spans more than 30 years, up through 2015, as a gripping thriller of repeated hope and setbacks. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos draw on archival video, commentary by Avery, footage from courtrooms and police interrogations, and interviews with key figures (including Avery's supportive, long-suffering parents).
The series eschews recreations and other docu-gimmickry, while seizing on a potent visual device: Many audio sequences play over scenes of rusting carcasses in Avery's Auto Salvage yard. It's as if to say, the Avery family deals with wreckage in plain sight, rather than the wreckage of a legal system fiercely kept under wraps by its custodians.
In the face of what seems, at minimum, reasonable doubt surrounding Avery, now 53, as well as his nephew, the series may offer a broader message: "We can all say that we're never gonna commit a crime," says Jerry Buting, one of Avery's defense lawyers. "But we can never guarantee that someone will never ACCUSE us of a crime.
"And if that happens," he warns, "then good luck in this criminal justice system."
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