Making a Successful Series: Making a Murderer

It was over a year ago when Sarah Koenig introduced Serial into the world. It seemed as though everyone was plugged into their smartphones listening to the week by week updates on an old criminal case featuring Adnan Syed and the death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. For twelve weeks, we listened and theorized along with Sarah and other listeners if Syed was innocent or guilty of killing Lee in 1999. I remember distinctly being thrown in an emotional roller coaster of “did he do it or not” as each detail was replayed and examined.

Besides exposing millions of listeners to this case and forcing new perspectives to be examined for Syed, Koenig also revitalized the podcast market. Studios, stations, and producers began kicking themselves for not having thought of something so simple and started planning the next Serial.

Podcasting is not new and neither are serialized stories. What makes it stand out is the story. It’s compelling and dramatic with an easy delivery system that kept people engaged week to week much like the original serialized radio shows of the early 1900s.

It’s a safe argument to say Netflix is king of streaming content right now. In 2013, they launched House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and the term “binge-watching” became as common as “movie marathons.” Since then, the success has only risen with Orange is the New Black, Beasts of No Nation, Chef’s Table, and now the new docu-series, Making a Murderer.

The new documentary series launched on December 18th, and it became synonymous with Christmas break 2015. It seemed everyone took their two week holiday and watched the entire 10-part series without blinking, and now the internet is in an uproar over the story.

I’m not going to discuss the case, or cases, this series has brought to light. We all have our opinions on if Steve Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are innocent or guilty for the death of Teresa Halbach. What I want to examine is how a documentary that began filming over 10 years ago goes from a passion project between two student filmmakers to the most talked-about program on Netflix right now.

Cinema and box office sales are dropping and DVD sales are starting to fall thanks to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming networks. Christopher Nolan has recently been quoted as saying unless cinemas retool how they show movies, they are DOA. Financially speaking, I couldn’t agree more.

Besides the ability to sit on your couch and not fight traffic on the way home from the theatre, what makes you click on the next episode when it’s past midnight and you have an early morning the next day?

The simple answer is the hook. That “stay tuned next week” tool that makes you laugh because you don’t have to wait until next week. You can just click that pesky play button (and shave off a new seconds) to continue your binge. What a time to be alive.

In Making a Murderer, the filmmakers (Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) knew how to make you click that button. In the last 3 minutes of each episode, they dropped a bomb or hook. This is where Demos’ background as a film editor comes into play. She cut together such a compelling cliffhanger, you had to know what was going to unfold next in this tragedy of errors that has turned the Avery’s family upside down.

At the end of the first episode, it’s easy to assume the series might cover Steven Avery’s first conviction and how they found him innocent, but instead, the last thirty seconds was dialogue between police officers.

“Do we have a body yet? We have Steve Avery in custody though, right?”

Hook. Line. Sinker.

If you’re familiar with the formulas of documentaries, they can, at times, come across as boring or dull. They have been known to be a talking head telling you the facts of life in a monotone and dry way. It’s rare when a documentary gives a blockbuster a run for its money (see Bowling for Columbine or Black Fish). But, like I mentioned, it really comes down to the story.

In Making a Murderer, you have a family of blue collar workers who are living in a very poor county in the middle of nowhere. Watching them is invasive and revealing. It’s easy to think they are characters rather than actual human beings. But the sad fact is, these are real people being tossed around the criminal justice system with abandon and no one to take them seriously. You can’t make this sort of stuff up, and this is great TV.

One of the characters introduced in the series is the prosecuting attorney, Ken Krantz. Watching him say the things he said with that feminine, wispy voice makes me think this is a figment of some screenwriter’s imagination of what a sleazy attorney must be. How can this individual be real? How can he possibly sleep at night?

Well, he is just one of several “characters” that are not figments, and he is part of what makes this series so compelling. He, and many others, are a car crash personified. We can’t help but click that next button and see what lunacy will unfold.

Classic storytelling and screenwriting has one very basic rule: keep it interesting. If something bad can happen, make it happen. There is no reason to have your characters saved or relieved because it’s boring. When it looks like there might be a reprieve, turn the tables.

Making a Murderer is a runaway success because the story is compelling and the characters are relatable and real. There is no chance for falseness here. Whether Steve Avery or Brenden Dassey are guilty or innocent doesn’t matter when you’re putting together a story. The criminal justice system of Manitowac County made sure of that. They have written a complex and outstanding screenplay that it is impossible to not be floored by the sheer ridiculousness that is this court case.

When writing a series, novel, or script, it doesn’t matter if your subject has been done before or if it’s simple. If it’s not compelling or interesting, it doesn’t stand a chance. You have to find a way to keep your audience engaged with twists and turns, and that is something Making a Murderer has in droves. While the story is unfinished and still asks questions that are impossible to answer, it was compelling and astounding. And that’s entertainment.

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2 thoughts on “Making a Successful Series: Making a Murderer

  1. I’ve been watching both this and Broadchurch somewhat concurrently. (I’m only about halfway through, so no spoilers anyone!) There is some similarity in the material. And they are both disturbing in their own ways. I go back and forth between which one is more disturbing though. Broadchurch has the advantage of being fiction, and they can write pretty much whatever they want to make it as disturbing as they want. But Making a Murderer has the advantage of having actually happened, which makes everything that much worse because it’s real.

    Of course, one danger in documentaries is selective editing. You can edit things to tell a story which may not be true but looks and sounds like it’s true. I’m not saying that happened here, but it’s always a danger. (When you get down to it, “truth” and “reality” can be hard to disentangle from “perception”, but I think you know what I mean.)

    1. Oh yes, I love the fact that one of the creators is a trained film editor. I know that definitely came into play, and with all of the recent news articles coming out shedding new light on the case, it’s really fascinating to see the public change their thinking. The media banks on the fact that they can change public opinion so easily. That’s almost as scary as the subject of Making a Murderer itself.

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