Directed by: Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. This one was a real doozy when it came out, like a real, honest-to-god, metric doozy. It was one of those things everyone was talking about, and I just couldn’t resist, and frankly, it was on Netflix and it was an easy way to kill time when you’re hanging out before bed. Like a lot of people, I was fully hooked. I’d better get that out of the way right now—they got me. I bought what they were selling, and even though I “knew better”, I knew they were making an entertaining documentary series, whose sole and only obligation is to get me emotionally invested so that I’m compelled to watch the whole series, and even though I know that the basic unit of measurement in a piece of art like this, the basic emotional currency is indignant outrage, which is an emotion I usually distrust because it’s usually in the arsenal of tabloid journalism, I still dug myself in and let myself be carried off by this show because it was so damn satisfying. Why? God knows. That’s a rabbit hole I don’t feel like going down at the moment.
So then, the question with this show isn’t about how good it is as a show, because that’s a pretty short conversation—it’s good! It does a good job at all the things it’s doing. But let’s be clear here: what it’s doing is taking a subject matter, in this case a real-life court case featuring real-life real lives, and manipulating it to fit a compelling narrative. That’s all, folks. That’s the business of any documentary, and that’s what always makes me kind of squeamish about the whole journalism/art debate in the documentarian community. A lot of compelling journalism can be done and is done through the artform of documentary, but holy cow—anyone who’s even remotely tried to make something like a documentary, or any piece of audiovisual art, can tell you, there’s nothing but selection, inclusion, exclusion, manipulation, and testing and testing and testing to see if you show a particular part for five seconds, or for two seconds, or not at all. And even though everyone knows all of this, and even I “knew” it, we were all taken in by this show. I suspended my judgement utterly and without hesitation, and I spent all 10 episodes resisting bitterly, tooth-by-nail, the small voice in the back of my mind urging me to remember to put big brackets over all of this shit because it’s very likely a very distorted and selective rendering of the events, distorted and selected and rendered as such specifically to get you in a state of emotional discombobulation that corresponds with what we call “good TV.”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch this show, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe the show’s central premise that Steven Avery and Brandon Dassey were framed and are entirely innocent of wrongdoing. I’m saying that it’s reasonable to base your opinion on the TV show based on the TV show, but it’s not very reasonable to base your opinion on the issue at stake, whether a murder trial or anything else, based on a TV show. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, we’re all doing it all the time all day every day. But we should be aware that we’re ignoring that little voice in the back of our heads, and if we don’t have that little voice, then we should beef that up a little bit, you know?