Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Real crime reporting grips us all

13 comments
Netflix doco shows investigative journalism at its compelling best, writes Duncan Greive. Warning: This story may contain spoilers.
Steven Avery (right) was wrongly convicted of sexual assault, only to be accused with his nephew Brendan Dassey of killing a photographer two years after being released.  Photo / AP
Steven Avery (right) was wrongly convicted of sexual assault, only to be accused with his nephew Brendan Dassey of killing a photographer two years after being released. Photo / AP

True crime reporting, one of the oldest pop cultural genres, seems on the brink of a mainstream moment. Over the holiday break, when the weather closed in, it felt like much of New Zealand (and the world) was glued to Making a Murderer, Netflix's 10-part documentary covering the shocking life and trials of Wisconsin man Steven Avery.

The show feels like the end of a trilogy which began with cold-case podcast Serial, continued with HBO's astounding The Jinx, examining the eccentric and terrifying killer Robert Durst, before concluding with Making a Murderer.

The latter is perhaps the most compelling and most flawed, though the strength of its material and research far outweighs any issues I might have with some editorial decision-making.

The fact I know what the film-makers chose to leave out of the show is why it has been so successful: it leaves you obsessed, ravenous for more detail, playing bush lawyer and possessed of a righteous fury on behalf of a pair of men you'll never meet.

So who are they? The centre of the show is Steven Avery, who we first meet as a young scalliwag running around rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Just the usual teenage stuff: public exposure, tossing cats into bonfires. Okay, he seems like a legitimately bad egg during that period of his life, but had a family and seemed to be getting it together, until he was nabbed for a violent sexual assault.

The local sheriff's department laboriously constructed the flimsiest of cases around him, despite strong alibi evidence that he was miles away at the time.

Brendan Dassey.
Brendan Dassey.

Then he was jailed, rotting for 18 horrendous years, until DNA evidence exonerated him and proved that it was the dangerous sex offender known to be in the area at the time - and who later confessed to the crime - who did it.

Avery emerges, blinking, beaming and extravagantly bearded, in 2003. He's got this extraordinary disposition, somehow failing to hold a grudge against the furtive incompetents who locked him up.

Yet within two years, those same men would have him arrested again, this time for murder.

The first episode races through that backstory, while the remaining nine follow, in close-up, the investigation, trial and sentencing in the case of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who went missing, last seen photographing Avery's van. The state's case leaned heavily on evidence both the defence and film-makers suggest was planted, and a confession in which no sensible person could have any confidence.

The pair of young women behind the show chanced upon the story just after graduating from college. They went off and embedded themselves with the Avery family, receiving the kind of emotional confidences which come from prolonged access.

They also spent large chunks of time with Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, Avery's lawyers, and the closest thing this grim saga has to heroes. They're smart, folksy lawyers, given to eyebrow-raising jersey choices and desert-dry wit.

Unlike The Jinx and Serial, each of which prominently feature the journalists or investigators involved, Making a Murderer is nearly entirely made up of contemporary footage: interviews, courtroom film, prison phone calls, conversations with defendants and their family, accompanied by repeated shots of the car graveyard the Averys call home.

With a lesser story this technique might have got stale, but the extraordinary intimacy of the material ensures Making a Murderer never lets you go. I found myself fantastically enraged at the Manitowoc County Sheriff's department, loudly explaining to my wife that a large hole in the ground needed to be dug for all these men to be tossed into.

Every so often another cretin would emerge: "He's going in the pit too," I'd say, righteously.

Now, a few days after, on reflection, I don't feel quite so infuriated. Evidence withheld from the show suggests the case against Avery was stronger than it was made to appear. But his co-defendant Brendan Dassey, just 15 at the time of the murder and an immensely sympathetic young man, remains a tragic figure. He talks himself into the gravest of trouble, without quite knowing why, and his repeatedly telling his mother, "I'm stupid," is one of the moments which linger most poignantly.

Since the show ended, I've had a dozen conversations about it. That's the holy grail of TV now: talkable television that markets itself through social media. Which makes it ironic that our major networks all last year divested themselves of the people best equipped to create New Zealand's version of the most exciting new genre around: investigative journalists.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 26 Sep 2016 13:56:38 Processing Time: 552ms