In a new documentary, viewers will be drawn into the world of a decade-long murder investigation. Witnesses come forward for the first time. Startling allegations are made. Lurid details are exposed! Are you hooked yet? The show is only a few clicks away: Simply go to Dateline's website and look for the recent episode titled Angels and Demons.
The majority of television viewers can be forgiven for their unfamiliarity with the case against psychic Daniel Perez. After all, that Dateline episode aired last spring, months before pop culture's current obsession with a different decade-old killing in Netflix's Making a Murderer. True crime – or, at least, a certain kind of hyperstylized vision of it – is having a moment.
In 2005, a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery was charged with murder. If you don't know what happens next, well, where have you been for the past month? A week before Christmas, Netflix quietly offered up the 10-part Making a Murderer documentary series, an exhaustive examination of what the filmmakers present as a case of police corruption against the accused. It proved to be the most popular holiday release not named Star Wars, immediately spurring a digital cottage industry of amateur sleuths determined to discover if Avery really is a killer. (And I do mean immediate: Many viewers binged all 10-plus hours of the series in days, if not one sleepless night.)
Making a Murderer is rightly discussed in the same breath as other recent serializations of true-crime tales: The Jinx, the six-part HBO series about Robert Durst and the mysterious disappearance of his wife; and the first season of Serial, the 12-part radio program that follows host Sarah Koenig's quest for the truth in the death of a Maryland teenager. They are all, objectively, compelling and compulsive entertainment. Who really did it? Why didn't they question that other guy? It's so obvious – can't the jury see what we see?
For the minds behind these shows, the creative lineage of their work traces back to highly lauded crime documentaries of the past. "We revisited the Paradise Lost trilogy as inspiration a lot," filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos said in a recent interview with Time magazine, in which they also referenced The Staircase, an eight-parter that aired on Sundance in 2004.
Yet little gratitude is ever given to the likes of Dateline or other mainstream network news programs, where true crime has been a staple for roughly forever.
Dateline and its murder-mystery format, for instance, has been a weekend tradition on NBC since 1992, drawing millions of viewers every week. An episode in 2006 was even one of the first in-depth looks at the Avery case outside Wisconsin. But there was no frenzy then, no White House petitions for Avery's release. Dateline is watched, but no one is breathlessly dissecting the latest instalment with co-workers come Monday morning.
To Ricciardi and Demos, Dateline even seems to be a punchline. In the fourth episode of Making a Murderer, the filmmakers show an old interview with a Dateline producer. "This is the perfect Dateline story. It's a story with a twist. It grabs people's attention," she says before adding gleefully, "Right now, murder is hot."
Making a Murderer indulges in the easiest of true-crime tropes: the news media as exploiters. In between heartbreaking original interviews and the tense playback of interrogation videos, Ricciardi and Demos often train their camera on the other cameras in the room: the TV reporters and crews they spent months alongside covering the trial and its postcourt news conferences. They are the smiling faces on the evening news who don't know what the filmmakers have uncovered. Late in the series, there is even an awkward scene where the documentary's camera lingers from a distance as TV news cameramen hound the mother of a suspect. Sensational!
The irony is that the only thing separating Making a Murderer from Dateline is its sheen. The Netflix series features no voice-over, and in that aural vacuum, family members, lawyers, police officers and the accused demand attentive listening. There's no blustery Lester Holt or Stone Phillips to project bias on the proceedings. But there is an awful lot of dependence on archival news clips – news clips that wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for likes of those vilified talking heads on network TV. But hey, at least Making a Murderer has that sexy True Detective-esque opening song.
Less than a month since the documentary's premiere, the real test of the appetite for the Avery story is upon us. The Internet has already run the gamut of fandom, from alternative murder theories to the transformation of defence lawyer Dean Strang into a normcore fashion icon (yes, really).
But here come the news media playing catch-up. In a surreal moment, Strang and former district attorney Ken Kratz took to Fox News recently to debate the case they tried against each other so long ago. Readers can find the latest Avery updates on sites such as People and TMZ. Investigation Discovery, a niche true-crime channel that fills out its schedule with Dateline reruns, has announced a special that promises to detail all the evidence left out of Making a Murderer. And Ricciardi and Demos themselves are still in contact with their protagonist, saying in interviews that there is more to come.
With the story left to play out, slowly and in real time outside the sandbox of Netflix, how many Making a Murderer devotees will hoover up the additional material on less glamorous media, in less polished forms? If, like the filmmakers, they believe in the injustice presented, Investigation Discovery may hit its highest ratings yet. More likely, though, the enthusiasm will subside, and some day we will turn our cultural fixations toward psychic killer Daniel Perez – whenever that 12-part documentary series might be released, that is.