There is a scene in the opening episode of the second series of Making A Murderer in which two protesters come to blows outside the Manitowoc County Courthouse. One man - there to defend Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey who, convicted of killing Teresa Halbach, form the show's plot - remonstrates ‘the Sheriff's department framed these two men’. ‘Don't let Netflix tell you what to think!,’ comes the guttural screech of his opponent.
That a programme can produce such extreme reactions - hundreds of furious protesters who have turned out to vouch for the innocence of people they know only through glimpses on their laptop screen; pleas to the President to pardon those involved; the turning of the case's key legal players into stars, with book deals and world tours - proves how deep our obsession with true crime has run. And just how damaging it is.
When Making a Murderer launched a week before Christmas in 2015 with every episode immediately available, as is the Netflix norm, it quickly drew a large, loyal following. Its aim, according to co-directors and writers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, was to explore ‘the American criminal justice system and to start a dialogue about how we can do better.’ The reality? It made Avery and his nephew Dassey, who was given a life sentence for Teresa’s murder at the age of 16, into idols.
A time of deepening political divides, a rash of videos of police killing alleged criminals going viral and a society in which justice is served via social media meant the stage was perfectly set to make heroes out of two men who had been, at least by Making a Murderer’s account, wronged by a system riven with corruption.
Ricciardi and Demos made the initial 10-part series over the course of a decade; their research certainly brought many holes in the convictions of its protagonists to light. Yet their work could never be truly even-handed, not really. How do you tell a whole story when no-one close to Teresa Halbach, the victim purportedly at the show’s core, had any part in it at all?
Numerous appeals and hearings for Avery and Dassey have come out of the programme - the same effect record-breaking podcast Serial had on its subject, Adnan Syed. Like the pair in Making a Murderer, he had been convicted of causing unlawful death more than a decade before his story was brought to the masses - on this occasion, via a podcast that accrued some 60m listens within its first year of release. The family of Hae Min Lee, his 18-year-old victim found strangled in a park in Baltimore, Maryland, were absent from it entirely.
Serial is considered the vehicle that launched a thousand true crime show offerings - all of which seem to necessitate the dredging up of a deeply painful past for people who don't want it, and a chance at superhero status for those who do. Like Avery and Dassey, the world's attention had a seismic effect on Syed's case and a new trial was ordered, though that decision has since been overturned.
I listened to the first season of Serial, and watched the inaugural series of Making a Murderer - I will not, however, be tuning into the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the eight-part Netflix show that begins tonight without, as you might well have guessed, the involvement of her parents. Some stories in which egregious miscarriages of justice have taken place need to be told, against the wishes of those they involve.
But the vast number of shows or films or podcasts that use tragedies to titillate have no desire to shed new light, or offer a tribute to those lost. They reduce the worst thing that will ever happen to a person - the brutal extinguishing of a child, sister, friend - and make it background fodder for the binge-watching masses.
The outpouring of highly successful shows like this - of The Jinx, The Staircase, The Keepers (the way they are named apparently being as formulaic as their structure) has become, for me at least, a source of intense discomfort. And not in the way some well-meaning documentary-makers might intend, of forcing the confrontation of unpleasant truths and re-evaluation of the institutions we hinge our society upon. But just deep, deep guilt that I might use the unbearable sadness of others to while away half an hour before I go to bed.
There is a difference between a tragic documentary made with the permission of those it concerns, and endless episodes being churned out beneath the slippery guise of entertainment. Yes, these programmes ‘start a dialogue,' as Making a Murderer's makers maintained, but often one we were better off not having at all. The violent reactions these shows often produce among fans, who believe that a few Netflix episodes render them as fit for judgment of those concerned as the legal professionals who worked on the cases in question for years, is vigilante justice at its worst.
I don’t know whether Syed, Avery or Dassey are innocent, and I do know that, often, something very good can come of a fraught case being put under a public microscope. But we will not learn anything new from the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann; be mobilised to put renewed pressure on authorities to re-examine the case; help her family in any way. All it will cause those at its heart is at best unnecessary drudging up of something they’d rather forget; at worst, pain, pain, pain. Those whose experience of ‘true crime’ is reality, rather than a plotline, have surely suffered enough.