‘Making a Murderer’ Season 2, and the State of True Crime Media
You’re not alone if you didn’t enjoy the second season of Making a Murderer. Many viewers, including myself, were disappointed in the series sequel released to Netflix this past week.
The problem here is that you can’t shock audiences twice. Furthermore, it’s hard to reignite outrage in a case that seems so far removed from the problems of today. However, I think there is a more significant concern here about the state of true crime media. The focus of true crime media has changed from stories about people to stories about institutions. Unfortunately, this most recent season of Making a Murderer made a poor decision on where to focus its time.
So, how did we get here?
Well… Making a Murderer premiered in December of 2015, and was an out of nowhere sensation. The plot was simple: Stephen Avery is a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of rape in the 1980s and exonerated in 2003. A few years later, Avery is accused, arrested, and convicted of murdering Theresa Halbach on his family’s junkyard property. Is Avery innocent? Has he been wrongfully convicted again, or did he commit this terrible act?
The show’s popularity absolutely had to do with the lackluster holiday home viewing schedule on Netflix in its early years. Yet, more accurately, it was a true crime “follow-up” to Serial. Serial‘s first season focused on a similar crime. It investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore Maryland. Her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was immediately suspected in the homicide, and the case went to trial. Syed was convicted even though there was some lacking evidence, and has proclaimed his innocence ever since. Both stories primarily focus on one question: “Are they innocent or guilty?” This question allowed audiences to constantly shift their positions on the case and discuss with others. Serial was released in October of 2014, and became the most downloaded podcast of all time (175 million downloads of the first season alone). Later that summer, The Jinx was released by HBO, and Serial‘s audience hoped on board. So, obviously the first season of Making a Murderer was on track to become one of the most popular documentaries on the platform at the time.
Now, this is how the second season starts: “Looks at us. We brought this case to you and the public– aren’t we amazing!” Sorry, Netflix. If this is the direction you’re taking the show, then no… you’re not. Why begin the new season with a montage like this showcasing how popular the show had become and how great Netflix is for bringing it to you? Well, it’s because they need to fill the screen time with something since they’re trying to stretch out each episode with content. At ten episodes (each an hour long) there is a ton of dead space in the second season, which is something that I did not notice with the first.
The first season was so tightly paced and packed with information. Each episode ending with a twist or hook that made you want to keep watching. Who could forget the ending of season one, episode four, or when Buting examined the vial containing Avery’s blood and noted that the vial was punctured. He goes on to further explain that LabCorp technicians don’t puncture the caps leading to Buting, alleging that the police “stuck a needle through the top and planted it in Halbach’s car.” This was such a fantastic moment! It gave audiences a reason to binge-watch the rest of the season. Regrettably, this second season was a slog to get through.
Let’s get to the actual content of the second season. The new series picks up just after the first season ended. Avery and Dassey are still in jail, but there are post conviction appeals in place for their cases. Avery’s new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, is fighting the evidence police gave at trial, and Dassey’s lawyers, Laura Nirider and Stephen Drizin, are trying to invalidate his confession, claiming that it was coerced. Right away there is a problem with how the second season sets up its narrative. The second season focuses on just a few issues and makes the case feel one-sided. Whereas the first season showcases the drama of both sides, the defense, and prosecution of the trial; the second season is only backing Avery and his family. The show goes so far in on Avery’s story that there is even a weird subplot throughout the season about Avery being a prison sex symbol. Why? I don’t care about any of this, get back to the case.
Then, more focus is put on Avery’s family since there are some bizarre things that Zellner does in order to prove Avery’s innocence—including a strange sequence where they’re trying to replicate blood splatter patterns in the same model car that Halbach drove by constantly tossing a mannequin (dressed and weighed the same as Halbach) into the seats. Sorry, Netflix. If I wanted to watch Mythbusters I would watch Mythbusters, and don’t even get me started on that bad Netflix original spinoff, White Rabbit Project.
Honestly, Zellner is just a bad representative for the show. She is cocky and clearly enjoys being wrapped up in the phenomenon and media circus of the show. She will do anything for her 15 minutes of fame and wants as much screen time allotted. Often times, without evidence, she will propose alternative theories and make claims about subjects just to get the heat off Avery. She even goes as far as blaming Bobby Dassey (Brendan’s brother) of being involved in the crime.
The only good thing about this season is Dassey’s lawyers, Nirider and Drizin, and their team from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern. They are methodical and procedural. There’s no real evidence against Brendan, so their objective is invalidating his confession, and his coerced confession in season one has been on the radar of devotees in every since. We want to know what will become of Dassey and how the Wisconsin police department is dealing with the backlash by show creators and fans that they wrongfully coerced and convicted Dassey. Unfortunately, these questions never get answered. The only few moments of criticism towards the justice system are seen in the final episode. In that episode, the filmmakers speak to Debra Katatsch who was the corner for the prosecution. She hints that there were some cover-up and corruption charges by the police that lead to Avery’s and Dassey’s incarceration. Why save this for the final episode and not have it been a constant topic throughout?
As of late, Netflix has had some issues with show sequels. You might have heard about the cancellation of the series Iron Fist and Luke Cage, but the problem truly began with the underwhelming rerelease of The Staircase in June. For those who don’t know, The Staircase is a 2004 French television miniseries that documented the trial of Michael Peterson, an American novelist who was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen whose body was found at the bottom of… what else…a staircase. Additionally, the three new episodes released to Netflix did not provide much of an update. Following that series, Netflix released Evil Genius, a four part documentary that focused on the case of the “pizza bomber,” and honestly that was underwhelming as well. Making a Murderer is just the latest of these true crime series to fail to understand why people are interested in these stories.
It’s about relating to the story. As fans, we put ourselves into the situations. We discuss what we would do and how we would judge. And because we are putting ourselves in place of the characters, we need to look at the larger system as a whole. In an era of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, we are all fighting against the injustice of our justice system. We need to take a harder look at how people can be convicted of crimes that they did not commit. How police can coerce confessions out of subjects, and how police can kill people in the streets without repercussions. There is a desire not just to accept the systemic nature of our justice system, and that is where true crime is headed. Unfortunately, you just have to wait as the second season of Making a Murderer only begins to question this in its ending.
Here are some true crime recommendations if you were disappointed in the second season of Making a Murderer. All of these focus on larger institutional problems in crime and punishment:
Dr. Death – Medical reporter Laura Biel and Wondery, the production company behind last year’s Dirty John, bring us the shocking true story of Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon who killed or permanently maimed 33 of his patients before being stopped. Dr. Death is about a medical system that failed to protect its patients at every possible turn.
In the Dark Season 2 – Curtis Flowers has been tried six times for the same crime. For 21 years, Flowers has maintained his innocence. He’s won appeal after appeal, but every time the prosecutor just tires the case again. What does the evidence reveal, and how can the justice system ignore the prosecutors record and keep Flowers on death row? In the Dark.
Serial Season 3 – Serial is heading back to court. This time, in Cleveland. A year inside a typical American courthouse, this season we tell you the extraordinary stories of ordinary cases. One courthouse told week by week.