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ARE TRUE CRIME DOCUMENTARIES ACTUALLY TRUE? (888) 481-1333 | www.joneshilllaw.com DECEMBER 2018 ‘MAKING A MURDERER’ AND ‘THE STAIRCASE’ GO UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
America has a secretly popular TV genre. On the surface, many people enjoy watching sports, comedies, and dramas. Some viewers might even push the boundaries with shows that are a little racy or mirror real-life situations, just to spice it up a bit. Many talk about these shows with their friends and families, but deep down, they hide an obsession that they can’t shake: watching true crime. The popularity of programs like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and “The Staircase” shows just how much Americans love learning about alleged criminals. Fictional TV is terrific because studies show that people enjoy watching characters they relate with and can learn from, but in a connected, digital world, viewers tend to seek out more personal and intimate forms of entertainment. Older generations crave the 7 p.m. prime-time showing of their favorite fiction that takes them to a different place for an hour, but millennials are shifting the entertainment pendulum more toward actual occurrences. Producers have taken notice of this, and somewhere between fiction and real-life drama resides the new wave of true crime. “OLDER GENERATIONS CRAVE THE 7 P.M. PRIME-TIME SHOWING OF THEIR FAVORITE FICTION THAT TAKES THEM TO A DIFFERENT PLACE FOR AN HOUR, BUT MILLENNIALS ARE SHIFTING THE ENTERTAINMENT PENDULUM MORE TOWARD ACTUAL OCCURRENCES.” As the trend gains popularity, more and more programs tell the stories of convicted criminals. You can learn about the trial of Steven Avery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in “Making a Murderer” and the grueling 16-year case of Michael Peterson in “The Staircase.” Commentaries on the justice system abound throughout these dialogues; they raise questions and guide audiences to certain conclusions. It makes for wonderful television, but watching these programs forces you to question the legitimacy of the filmmakers’ interpretations.
In the case of “Making a Murderer,” certain facts and opinions intentionally shape your point of view. The directors may withhold certain details in order to throw you for a loop or to sensationalize the story. One episode might have you convinced Avery is a stone- cold killer and the next that the justice system put an innocent man behind bars. This storytelling tactic should make one wonder about the actual proceedings of the criminal trial. While facts are facts, they can certainly be framed in a way that draws a particular conclusion, and if that conclusion is slanted, or even potentially inaccurate, is what you’re watching actually true? “The Staircase” is similar. The facts are framed through a specific lens, and other members outside of Michael Peterson’s team are portrayed as incompetent, liars, or blinded by rage. You might accept this perception as fact and move on, but you should ask, “Who is telling the story?” The production was conceived by Michael Peterson when he was first arrested with the intention of documenting the proceedings, meaning every happening in the series is told from his perspective. It’s almost as if the audience is a jury, but they only hear one side of the argument, which leads to the most significant complication of these shows. Both programs have one critical flaw that should make you question whether or not you are watching something true or a fictionalized version of reality: Both filmmakers leave out facts. In “Making a Murderer,” it’s never mentioned that Steven Avery repeatedly called Teresa Halbach to his house and often answered in just a towel or the nude. In “The Staircase,” the footprints on the back of Kathleen Peterson’s pants are never explained, and in the trial, it’s believed that they would coincide with where Michael Peterson would’ve stood during the killing. Convenient holes and suspect framing should make you cautious when interpreting shows like these, but at the same time, the commentaries open up a meaningful dialogue on what justice really is. Whether they are true or not, we’ll leave that for you to decide — but “true” crime makes for good TV regardless.
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