Why I can’t binge-watch 'Making a Murderer' but can’t look away

Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 5:45pm

Small towns have their secrets.

I know, because I’m from one. My family lives in Ludington, Mich., a summer hotspot on the shore of Lake Michigan. Starting in June, our downtown is packed with ice cream-licking tourists, sunset watchers and sand dune hikers who never stray too far from the trail. They often buy tickets to board the S.S. Badger, a car ferry that ships directly across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wis., a small town that mirrors our own.

Safe to say, Manitowoc is no longer known as just a lakeside retreat. Since “Making a Murderer” premiered on Netflix in December, the 10-episode true-crime documentary has shined an unflattering light on the town and people of Manitowoc — uncovering violent crimes and the power that townspeople (law enforcement included) have over undesirable members of the community. For instance, the power to sentence young Steven Avery to 18 years of prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Before Avery becomes (or is made into) a murderer, as the show title implies, he’s undoubtedly a victim of the justice system. “Making a Murderer” opens in the year 1985, when Penny Beerntsen, wife of a well-respected business owner, was attacked while running on the shore of Lake Michigan. When the police heard her story, Steven Avery was labeled a prime suspect — he had a record of petty crimes, but more pertinently, he had beef with his cousin, the deputy sheriff’s wife — and though he had several witnesses to his whereabouts, Avery was arrested. In the trial that followed, Avery was successfully prosecuted by the state and charged with first-degree sexual assault and attempted murder.

His case didn’t go unnoticed. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, an organization committed to righting unjust convictions, took Avery under its wing. With improved DNA testing in the 2000s, the organization was able to prove Avery’s innocence: they didn't find Avery’s hair in the case evidence, but rather Gregory Allen’s, a serial sex offender in Manitowoc who was prone to violence. When the damning results came out in 2003, Avery was released from prison — and into the arms of attorneys eager to sue the court of Manitowoc.

What happened next is both heart wrenching and bewildering. In October 2005, Avery was in the process of filing a $36 million federal lawsuit against Manitowoc County, when a body was found dead on his property — or the remains of one, anyway. Teresa Halbach, a reporter for Auto Trader, had been sent to Avery’s junk yard to photograph cars for sales ads in the magazine. She arrived on Avery’s property on October 31; her bone fragments were discovered 10 days later, buried in Avery’s fire pit. Halbach’s RAV4, hidden by plywood and brush, was found among the junk cars. Though Halbach wasn’t in the vehicle, something else was: Steven Avery’s blood. And in a corner of Avery’s house, dropped on the floor, were the keys to her car.

Public opinion toward Avery shifted immediately. Once the poster child of wrongful convictions, Avery was dropped from the Innocence Project’s files. News of the murder was picked up by the New York Times, which is how Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, both graduate film students at Columbia, heard about the case in 2005 and decided it had the makings of a documentary. Over the next 10 years, the two traveled to Wisconsin on a shoestring budget, interviewing Avery’s family and attorneys, gathering hours of court footage and mining through thick police reports to create the film.

As it happens, 10 years was exactly how long the show needed to bake. With recent true crime series like HBO’s “The Jinx” and podcasts like “Serial” garnering massive media attention, “Making a Murderer” slid naturally into the same place. Like its predecessors, the series has the power to hook an audience — people like me, who are familiar with Manitowoc and know the power of small-town politics, or those who thrive off mysteries, like the hundreds of Reddit users who’ve posted their own theories about the case. Even top documentary filmmakers, talk show hosts and journalists from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone Magazine have turned their heads.

But despite the hype and its Netflix platform, “Making a Murderer” isn’t a show to binge watch. It’s too frustrating, disturbing and frankly exhausting to view more than one episode in a sitting. Part of this is due to its bare-bones form, which relies almost exclusively on filmed interrogations, court trials and recorded phone calls between Avery and his family — conversations that aren’t so much illuminating as they are repetitive. A recent “Late Night With Seth Meyers” parodied these calls perfectly in Meyers’ skit, “Making a Talk Show Host”:

“Yah, Seth?” asks a collect call from New York.

“Yeah,” Meyers replies.

“Yah, you gotta come back. Ya know?”

“I’ve only been out two weeks,” Meyers says. “Two weeks I’ve been gone. I gotta come back? ... So, I gotta come back?”

Though “Making a Murderer” doesn’t have the constant action we’ve come to expect in a crime series, we have to remember what it is: not a fictional crime show, but a true story with real people, whose lives have been battered and stolen from them. Perhaps it’s this truth — the realness of Manitowoc and its citizens, their situations both horribly familiar and unbelievable — that makes it hard to look away.