“Making a Murderer,” the Netflix true-crime series that debuted in December, is a phenomenon not just because it spins a fascinating, enraging and almost unbelievable yarn. People can’t stop talking about the story of crime and punishment in small-town Wisconsin in part because it exposes not just individual mistakes and acts of misconduct, but inconvenient truths about a disturbing array of blind spots that lurk within the overall criminal justice system.
As a lifetime resident of one of Wisconsin’s neighboring states, I’m used to Hollywood portraying residents of flyover country more or less as Hobbits: Midwestern characters are often salt of the earth, well-intentioned, stubborn and a little dumb. Some of the details of the case at the heart of “Making a Murderer” are almost hopelessly muddled by this point, but whatever your position on defendant Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence, the series makes it clear that a small town in the middle of the country can contain more strange, dark and heartbreaking realities than much of the entertainment industry would have you believe. In any event, it’s hard not to come away from the series thinking that an enormous injustice was done to Avery’s nephew, the unfortunate Brendan Dassey.
Though it hits the occasional slow spot (and by the end, it’s hard not to be tired of shots of rusting cars), all of its fine qualities certainly raise “Making a Murderer” above the level of tabloid-TV fare. The series paints a timely portrait that we can’t ignore, even as it pulls us along in the wake of its twists, turns and setbacks. Not surprisingly, a number of “Making a Murderer” spinoffs and ancillary projects have been announced (including a Jan. 29 “Dateline” special and Investigation Discovery’s “Steven Avery: Innocent or Guilty,” which airs Jan. 30 and which my colleague Brian Lowry reviewed).
But the Netflix series is not, of course, the only high-profile documentary to have entered the zeitgeist. “Serial” helped set the stage for the current true-crime boom, and HBO’s “The Jinx” made an even bigger media splash than “Murderer.” The older “Paradise Lost” trilogy of films, which chronicle the stranger-than-fiction odyssey of three men accused of child murders in Arkansas (and have many parallels in the outstanding scripted Sundance series “Rectify”), are essential true-crime narratives and part of the excellent documentary offerings on HBO Go. One terrific semi-recent HBO documentary that did not break through into the pop-culture conversation — but should have — is “The Newburgh Sting,” which is well worth checking out if you have concerns about potential and actual law-enforcement overreach in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Before I get to my main post-“Making a Murderer” recommendation, I’ll mention a few other crime-related documentaries well worth seeking out. One my all-time favorites is Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In,” which is on Netflix. It brilliantly uses one family’s odyssey through the criminal-justice system as a vehicle to examine the state of crime, punishment and opportunity in America. As it broadens out from those individual experiences, it becomes ever more searing and thought-provoking, but never abandons its atmosphere of bittersweet and compassionate disbelief.
“The Central Park Five,” an award-winning film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is not just enraging, though it’s hard not to be riled by the treatment of the young men who were falsely imprisoned for a notorious attack that they didn’t commit. The documentary, which is also on Netflix, does an excellent job of providing cultural context about the late ’80s in New York and showing how initial press reports of an attack in Central Park devolved into a media frenzy that was often appallingly racist. “The Central Park Five” methodically and skillfully picks apart the way that prejudice, irresponsible media coverage and a rush to judgement by law enforcement created a nightmare for these men, whose eventual exoneration is also part of the gripping narrative.
Another Netflix documentary about an April 1989 event is “Hillsborough,” devastating indictment of those responsible for a U.K. sports tragedy. Whatever you think you know about the disaster that killed 96 soccer fans at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium that year, it’s probably wrong. This dogged and devastating film does an exceptional job of laying out exactly what occurred and examining the terrible decisions and human error that contributed to the tragedy. It also dissects what the media was told and shows how the spread of incorrect and inflammatory stories damaged families and survivors, and in its second half, it examines how the police and other institutions in Sheffield and beyond covered up their culpability in the tragedy. Even if you care nothing for sports, “Hillsborough’s” first-person interviews and meticulous reporting will keep you glued to your seat.
Those are all one-off films, but there’s something hypnotic about longer documentary series; done right, they create a unique mood and allow you to enter a world that seems complete. Their narratives are often contradictory, but the longer running time means they don’t have to tidy each aspect of the story into something smooth and relatively unambiguous. They can be spikier, sadder, stranger and more bewildering. (Lowry also reviewed the upcoming seven-hour ESPN documentary series “OJ: Made in America,” which is as fascinating and excellent as FX’s scripted true-crime yarn about the trial, which arrives Tuesday.)
The finest multi-part true-crime documentary to ever air on American television — yes, better than “Making a Murderer” — is Sundance TV’s “The Staircase.” The eight-part series debuted in 2005 and returned in 2013 with a two-part follow-up, and all 10 installments are now available on Sundance TV’s site and app.
Like “Making a Murderer,” “The Staircase” is an addictive tale with two main strands: The investigation of a complicated murder case, as well as the story of the defense and prosecution teams who tangle as they try to construct believable narratives out of the available evidence.
Few cases outside the realm of page-turning mystery fiction have the kind of strange tangents and fascinating revelations that litter “The Staircase.” In the original eight-part series, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade demonstrated a flawless control of tone and pacing, and drew the viewer in deeply without ever calling attention to his skills. Watching the show is quietly immersive journey that skillfully builds up suspense and a somber atmosphere as it progresses.
It helps that the director has a fascinating central character in Michael Peterson, a wealthy North Carolina author accused of killing his spouse. Even though Peterson, like Avery, hired a capable defense team, part of de Lestrade’s point appears to be that even ample resources aren’t enough to ensure that the legal machinery treats criminal defendants fairly. Peterson’s lawyers, like the ones in “Making a Murderer,” also emerge as compelling figures, as do the writer’s children, who come of age under the dark cloud of this hydra-headed case.
“The Staircase’s” narrative is so deft that the gut-wrenching nature of its conclusion almost comes as a surprise. If you watch, for years afterward, you may find yourself often thinking about the lawyers and families caught up in the unrelenting vise of this case. All in all, the empathic restraint of the series recalls the most quietly enthralling moments of the strange Avery saga; both stories are much, much stranger than fiction.