It’s amazing how long it takes to post a blog post comes when your actual job starts taking priority. Oh, how I miss those days of lethargic lounging during the winter holidays having time to write. Since I’ve found a minute or two, I guess I’ll try to write some thoughts down.
Towards the end of 2015, Netflix jumped on the true crime bandwagon and produced an enthralling series called Making a Murderer. I’ve yet to watch it, even though it’s on my need-to-watch list, but it has created quite a buzz.
Here’s a quick summary of the show (As mentioned before, I have yet to see the show. My summary will also serve as a reenactment of my students when they try to write a summary on The Crucible without reading it).
Steven Avery spent close to 20 years behind bars in Wisconsin until DNA proof exonerated him from the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten. After his exoneration, he was then arrested and found guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach. The show was filmed over a ten-year period, capturing Avery’s story.
True Crime: True or False?
Time published a great article by Daniel D’Addario looking at the genre and how it has taken the public by storm. Here’s where I want you to go read it. Typically, I’m not supposed to steer you away from my blog, but it’s a great article that makes you think.
Go read. I’ll wait.
Ok, so you’re back. Or, you didn’t read it, and I get to continue my dribble assuming you did (I call this my daily battle).
D’Addario touches on the word that makes the genre appealing while at the same time weakens it: Ambiguity.
We are presented with information—facts even—but like good storytellers, the producers of this show are not trying to solve this crime. They are not trying to prove the facts. They are not trying to show the loopholes of the justice system or even ride on the irony of Avery’s initial acquittal followed by his subsequent arrest. We have to remember their true end: Ratings.
All That Baby Momma Storytelling Drama
Sarah Koenig’s Serial Podcast enjoyed a similar cult-like following Making a Murderer is experiencing right now. The first season follows Koenig’s research into the murder case of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. Serial presented Koenig’s findings, allowing listeners to listen to interviews with witnesses, friends, family, teachers, and Adnan himself. It really was an addicting podcast—one of which I got sucked into myself.
D’Addario points out that even though Koenig sought help to solidify some loose ends and questions on the conviction by law students and professionals, her goal was not to overturn his conviction. The goal was to present the story. That’s what a journalist does—or rather, that’s what a journalist is, a storyteller. She told Adnan’s story, and she did one heck of a job. But how did she do it?
She dramatized her own process, one which D’Addario says makes the reader feel like an expert and detective. Being a weekly podcast, there’s also time for fans of the show to speculate, time to flesh out conspiracy theories.
“There’s something about the sheer volume of a serialized show that makes the viewer feel as though he or she is becoming an expert.” -D’Addario
And there’s the option of coming up with numerous theories without marrying one. It becomes a game, and the pieces are real lives that become near-fictional characters.
Taught’em Everything They Know…
Since these real life people become characters in a dramatized story, we assume the story is presented with the same rules a detective story has. We assume all the evidence is present when in reality producers have a habit of leaving out evidence. D’Addario certainly believes the art of omission creates a deeper story.
“The melodrama is as easily obtained by leaving things out of a story as by putting them in.” -D’Addario
Remember, a good storyteller only gives his or her audience what he or she want the audience to know. They don’t necessarily tell you everything available. In reality television, everything you see technically happened, so are your eyes lying to you? It’s all in the edit presented to the audience. Leaving both the edit and the audience to be controlled by the storyteller.
Let It Be, Man
I know what some of you are thinking: Why do people have to over think these things and ruin the joy I find in such “Real” crime dramas?
There are a million real crime stories. D’Addario says the genre has been around since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where he was clearly looking to tell a good story and clearly not trying to solve a mystery. Putting these stories under such scrutiny allows for the truly brilliant ones to shine that much brighter.
It also reminds us that we are dealing with real life. We’re not dealing with Kardashian Kit Kat secrets. In the case of Serial, we’re dealing with the real life fact that a teenage girl was murdered, and the boy convicted of her murder might (or might not) have actually committed a heinous crime.
We Gettin’ Storytelling Wasted
One of the greatest weights a story can have is an element of truth. The more truth found in a story, the greater it is. At first, the simple truth of a tale is intoxicating, and it doesn’t take much. But the more we are exposed to, the less a good ounce of truth affects us. We need a double shot of the high-octane stuff.
We need something outlandish, something improbable to give us that fix. Serial and Making a Murderer have lured in their audiences by a stiff shot of truth. But the make the fun last, we need to nurse a little bit of speculation and drag it out.
Newspapers have been doing this for decades, and I often wonder in our CNN-happy, Fox News-crazy, MSNBC-fueled world, can we actually trust the “ethics” of our storytellers. For news groups, ISIS terrorism infiltrating our pseudo-safe, Western world warrants hard facts, but when it comes to a whodunit kind of story, it’s almost permissible to equate fictional characters enwrapped in a Faulkneresque dream with real people living a Faulkneresque nightmare.
Enjoy your stories. These are not Grandma’s soaps. But remember that the names involved are not characters but real people. Fight against the ambiguity of fiction and reality. It’s fun to ride the cult-like wave of trends, but remain educated.
“Ambiguity is the the that’s falling out of fashion.” -D’Addario