Could the success of Making a Murderer ever be repeated?

Making a Murderer makes me heartsick, but it was clearly a labour of love - unlike Channel 4's Manchester’s Serial Killer?

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I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone say, “I’m heartsick”: in these modern times, we prefer the misleading catch-all “depressed”. But in my case, it’s the only word that will do. Heartsick. That’s what I felt as I watched Making a Murderer, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s documentary series about the conviction, possibly wrongful, of Steven Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey for the murder of a 25-year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, in 2005.

People speak of bingeing on Making a Murderer: they liken it to a drug and its host, Netflix, to a pusher. I find this hard to understand. Why would anyone want to binge on such unutterable misery? It was with something close to dread that I’d line up the next episode, aware that I could happily live without knowing fully how hopeless life can be, and how elusive justice. There was a period when I believed I would never see the last two films. When I did finally watch them, I was able to do so only in 15-minute bursts. In the gaps between, I ate buttered toast and googled Amal Clooney.

Even now, it’s not over. In newspapers and on the internet, the words pile up, putrid and partisan. People make wild statements about innocence and guilt, as if any of us knows anything, really, save for what we’ve seen in a film that must be partial to a degree, and whose focus, in any case, is on the system rather than on that most fuzzy of concepts, “truth”.

Every day, there comes some fresh twist: a new lawyer is appointed; a petition swells; an ex-girlfriend speaks; the prosecutors decry the producers. Meanwhile, at TV companies everywhere, the scramble is on for more of the same. The BBC has already announced one such commission: The Station, which will investigate an alleged British miscarriage of justice.

This is madness. The success of Making a Murderer won’t be repeated in the short term – or, perhaps, ever. It took Demos and Ricciardi a decade to make it; anyone who believes he can conjure up an equally involving and multilayered film in vastly less time is deluding himself. Some film-makers might, as they did, take a punt, embedding themselves in a story now in the hope that it will pay dividends long in the future (no one wanted Making a Murderer until, at the last moment, Netflix stepped in). But others, faced with TV companies reluctant both to invest in investigative journalism and to give its results proper airtime, will take short cuts – at which point, catch-22, viewers and commissioning editors alike will move on to the next big thing.

Fourteen years ago, I worked on a case of miscarriage of justice (that of Susan May, convicted in 1993 of murdering her aunt, Hilda Marchbank, in Royton, Lancashire). The time I devoted to this was on my bill. My editors were content for me to visit a prison, or attend an appeal, so long as I still did what I was being paid to do (more glamorous, newsworthy stuff); and I was content to go along with them, given that I very much needed to be paid. What I know about such stories is that they involve huge amounts of sheer drudgery; that it is extremely difficult to summarise complex forensic evidence and legal arguments accurately; and that these cases, by their nature, are rarely very “sexy” (ie, easy to sell, to viewers, or readers, or commissioning editors).

How Demos and Ricciardi funded themselves, I don’t precisely know. Oh, the years they spent in snowy Wisconsin; the time they devoted to getting the perfect shot of the ghostly Avery family salvage yard, to persuading Steven’s mother, Dolores, to do anything other than sit in her kitchen staring silently at a can of soda. (For all the disquiet their film instils, it is also strikingly beautiful.) Yet it isn’t remotely mysterious that only Netflix – an internet service with endless airtime, which is still working out how best to make its model work – was willing to give them a cheque, albeit when they were almost done, as well as the luxury of ten hour-long episodes. It alone had nothing to lose.

What might a true-crime documentary made too quickly, and on too small a budget, look like? I think it might bear a strong resemblance to Manchester’s Serial Killer? (Tuesdays, 11pm), which sought to discover if there is any truth in the rumour that the 86 bodies found in the city’s canals since 2008 arrived there thanks to an assassin known locally as the Pusher. Its ghastly, repetitive, exploitative recipe went something like this: take three grieving families, one ham-faced ex-copper and one gossipy Canal Street drag queen; add as many groundless tweets (#thepusher) as you can find, plus several clips off local radio in which callers can be heard indulging in wild speculation. Mix thoroughly.

If the result seems lacking in flavour (“I don’t feel there’s a serial killer involved,” said the ex-copper, of the three deaths on which the film focused), don’t worry. You can add more supposition – “To be able to say categorically there isn’t a serial killer involved, you’d have to look at all the cases” – after it comes out of the oven. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war