How Making a Murderer and Serial Became Cultural Phenomena

  • Copy by: Daryl Lindsey

The new year just begun, but Netflix has already blessed 2016 with its very first bona fide cultural phenomenon. 

The streaming service added true crime documentary Making a Murderer on Dec. 18, just days before millions around the world retreated into their homes for the holidays with enough time and mental headspace to binge on hours of documentary footage. And, oh, binge we did. 

The world returned to work and regular life after the new year, with just about everyone and their mother buzzing about the series to any and all who would listen. I had barely sat down at my desk my first day back at work when (at least) four or five people walked over to ask what episode I was on and what my opinions were. 

I would normally be surprised (shocked, even) that a multi-part, relatively low-budget docu-series like Making a Murderer could become so freakishly popular in a matter of days, if it weren’t for the fact that the Serial podcast had already reinvigorated the true crime genre in late 2013. 

Much like Making a Murderer, the weekly podcast exploded into mainstream pop-culture (Serial was downloaded over 40 million times) and became an instant source of water cooler conversation, crazed theorizing, and declarations of being “totally addicted.” 

These two works of investigative journalism were—and are—suddenly being talked about the way we talked about the Star Wars movie or a favorite HBO series. Almost instantly they evolved from mere true stories of events into bits of pop-culture to be consumed and immortalized. 

Words like “binge” and “spoilers” are now used to describe the lives of real people and the injustices they may or may not have faced in the real world. 

But why? What makes this form of storytelling so addictive to people like you and me? 

The puzzle 

Serial creator Sarah Koenig herself said that the appeal of the true crime genre is the Rubik’s cube—the ability to play detective and connect the clues as they come along.

“To match all the conflicting elements and ‘solve’ the puzzle seems almost impossible,” wrote The Guardian about the series. “Not because of cover-ups, conspiracies, police skulduggery, racism or incompetence, but because of the messiness of ordinary life.” 

Real lives, real people

That element of “ordinary life” is what separates popular crime documentaries from fictional dramas. 

In fiction, writers construct a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. They may plant a few red herrings to distract or tease the audience, but unless you’re watching The Sixth Sense, you can usually predict how the story will end. There’s foreshadowing. Buildup. A twist. The good guys connect the clues and get the bad guys. 

Real life? Not so much. 

I remember watching a documentary about American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011.

Knowing that real lives and livelihoods are at stake up the ante ten times over.

About halfway through the film, an IED blew up the caravan and killed two of the soldiers inside, both of whom had played a vital role in the story.  I remember being shocked that these main “characters” could be killed so quickly and unexpectedly; life’s plot twists never come at the expected moments and there are no sensible story arcs. Knowing that real lives and livelihoods are at stake up the ante ten times over.

“In life, there are multiple versions of events and they are contradictory,” wrote the The Guardian. “Memories are false, people misspeak, they are misunderstood, mistakes are repeated until they are unmoored from the original and turn into concrete evidence for conspiracy nuts.”

Because they document real events, there’s no way for us to reasonably predict what will happen when we start watching Making a Murderer or listening to Serial. We can make our guesses (and we really love to make our guesses), but in the end we can only tune in to the next episode to find out more. 

Not just a whodunit 

Source: Steven Avery

Back in the day, all a true crime documentary needed for success was a good whodunit. An enraptured audience would piece together clue after clue until it was finally revealed who murdered, kidnapped, or framed the innocent victim. 

In a messy, unpredictable, painful reality, the good guys don’t always wear white hats. 

Serial and Making a Murderer are both so much more than that: They are intimate looks into the ways the American justice system can sometimes fail us.

I can say confidently that most every American wants to believe that the people who have pledged their lives and careers to serve and protect us really do have our best interests at heart, but there comes a time when we have to acknowledge that in a messy, unpredictable, painful reality, the good guys don’t always wear white hats. 

Both works of journalism work to expose miscarriages of justice that are painful to watch, not just because we see people robbed of their rights to due process, but because our own paradigms are shifted as we come to terms with the fact that sometimes the system fails people—particularly people who lack the money or education to fight back.

“Poor people lose,” observed Steven Avery from a jail cell during one of Making A Murderer’s more poignant moments. “Poor people lose all the time.”

Making A Murderer is currently streaming on Netflix. Listeners can download Serial (season one and two) on iTunes. 

We want to hear from you! Did you listen to Serial or watch Making a Murderer? Whose side are you on? Did either one change your views or perspectives? Start a discussion in the comments!