A Tragic Lack of Humility

Making a Murderer, like most good binge-watches, is like lying in the bathtub after unplugging the drain. You can feel the water tugging at your shoulders and ankles, until it starts sounding like it’s accelerating in speed. For me last night was the night we said, “Let’s just finish this.”

I feel for the makers of Serial, who released their own Season 2 the same week or so that Netflix started streaming this show, exposing themselves to inevitable comparisons. Serial is still probably reaching enough listeners to be the envy of anyone who ever tried making a podcast, if not for the inflated expectations that followed its Season 1.

It could just prove what we already know, that we, the public, like a murder mystery. I like to think I’ve got a discursive mind, and I’m not addicted to the thrill of suspense at all. In fact, I knew the general outcome of Making a Murderer beforehand and still loved every second. Still, I felt the first episode of Serial Season 2, about the Bowe Bergdahl case, gave the story away. I put it on the mental “check that out sometime” list, like a New Yorker issue under the coffee table, opened to a long profile I never quite make time to read. I guess I’m a sucker for a story like anyone else.

The more profound difference between the two series is that Making a Murderer has no narration. I know, one’s radio, one’s TV, and they have different possibilities, but Making a Murderer is so much more complete an experience because it’s mostly footage and audio-taped phone calls of the participants while it’s unfolding or shortly afterward, mostly in beautiful Wisconsin working class dialect. And I do mean that without sarcasm: if you’ve spent any time in Wisconsin, and I’ve spent some, you know what a distinct place it is, full of good-hearted, trusting people, but a state with a mean streak. Making a Murderer immerses you there. You sometimes hear the word “musical” to describe accents from the Deep South, but Wisconsin has a music in its o’s and a’s too, strange and dissonant but musical nonetheless.

Serial, by comparison, has lots of its public radio hosts’ ponderous observations. It feels like you’ve landed at a dinner party in Brooklyn Heights or Ann Arbor, with all the familiar reference points, and started eaves-dropping on a fascinating conversation between an attorney and someone just home from the Peace Corps. Fascinating, but pass the quinoa.


D.A. Kratz, smug perv of the year.

In Making a Murderer, it’s not till the third or so episode, out of ten, that the series introduces its heroes, the defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, two Atticus Finches of the North. A Kirk-Spock or Luke-Han Solo duo with more muted Midwestern accents, they seem like small town guys who got advanced degrees but kept a soft spot for the folks on the wrong sides of the tracks.

By then we’ve already met the villains, the faces of the law enforcement-prosecution machine that Strang ultimately has the last word on: guys with a “tragic lack of humility.” As it goes on, you occasionally hear the defense’s researcher break down what’s going on, in that knowledgable way that only an ex-cop can deliver.

Strang himself attributes the success of Making a Murderer to two trends in public thinking that are seemingly at odds: That shows like CSI have gotten people to think of court rooms as places where scientific certainty can be found; and that DNA evidence has exonerated enough convicts in the past 15-20 years that people are open to the fallibility of courts. I’d only add that Black Lives Matter has put police-prosecution systemic bias on the map like never before. Making a Murderer is an in-depth look at a control group for what ails Ferguson or Cleveland: a lily white community with similar stories, but different skin tones.

Only Episode 10, when the lawyers proliferate, feels like we’ve emerged from the depths of the Wisconsin working class into the fresh air (pun intended) of the collegiate, free-tote-bag set, but I didn’t mind that at all either. I was ready for some commentary to make sense of it all, and I don’t feel like throwing a dinner party.

I see why this is the series, and the Serial, of the winter of 2015-16.

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