In December 2015, as I was home from college on winter break, I holed up in my room for two days straight devouring the first season of Making a Murderer. I may as well have had a wall with photos of Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, Ken Kratz, and James Lenk connected by yarn.
Making a Murderer tells the story of Avery, a man wrongly convicted of sexual assault and imprisoned for 18 years. After his exoneration, a photographer mysteriously went missing on his property. The Netflix original documentary series follows the trials of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey as their lawyers argue that the Manitowoc Police Department framed them for murder.
I felt a certain kinship to the story because I lived in Northeastern Wisconsin at the time these events unfolded. I watched the verdict live on TV. I remember feeling certain of his guilt. The first season shook my foundation. I no longer knew what was real.
The first season of Making a Murderer turned the entire world into Facebook lawyers. It was our generation’s In Cold Blood. It was Netflix’s first real watercooler show, too. How the hell do you follow that up?
Elvis Costello famously said, “You have 20 years to write your first album and six months to write your second.” The Making a Murderer team developed the first season for nearly a decade before it came out, meticulously crafting a fully-realized story. Then, after their smash success, they had to turn around a second season in less than three years before the story had any conclusion.
Furthermore, back in 2015, Netflix releasing original content was rarer. Today, Netflix releases a mediocre movie every week and constantly unveils other new true-crime miniseries to obsess over. Making a Murderer Season 2 may well drown in the ocean of oversaturation.
The second season follows lawyer Kathleen Zellner as she tries to overturn Avery’s sentence. The series examines how a family copes with incarcerated members. It kicks off on a meta note, remarking on how ubiquitous the show became. It also acknowledges glaring evidence left out from the first season: Avery’s DNA under Teresa Halbach’s hood.
The production value is much higher. The cameras look nicer and now there’s professional lighting. Shots of cotton floating around farmlands in the summertime replace Season 1’s looming shots of the auto yard in the frigid winter. It has a score reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky’s music for Friday Night Lights. Talking heads and sit-down interviews replace the gritty verite style of the first season, and many scenes in the follow-up feel more performative.
The second season offers no new real revelations. Most of the theories Zellner offers are complete conjecture. So they continue to retread over all the same evidence, fixating over semantics (how could blood possibly splatter like that?!). And honestly, the more you stare at Avery’s case, the harder it becomes to believe.
One potential concept is Bobby Dassey as the murderer. A family member of Avery’s who gave conflicting stories of what happened on that fateful day on Halloween 2005, he also has a history of violent pornography searches. Still, no concrete evidence.
Since there’s no real story, the show relies on the charisma of its characters. Members of the Avery family come crawling up out of the woodwork to be on television. At certain points, it seems like more of a reality series than a documentary: The Real Housewives of Manitowoc County. Avery acquires a new fiance who turns out to only want fame and money.
It’s no surprise law experts, forensic analysts, and auto workers from Northeastern Wisconsin aren’t always the most riveting people to watch. There’s only so many times you can hear Dassey say “Yeah?” over the phone before it stops being endearing. The show devolves into a lot of arduous legal proceedings. Some may find this fascinating; others, tedious.
What Netflix doesn’t understand is that people weren’t obsessed with this specific story. Viewers just love true crime. It taps into something twisted and voyeuristic deep inside us. They should have taken the second season to tell a brand new story of a corrupt police station framing someone apparently innocent. Better yet, one where the convicted is a person of color, an all too often occurrence.
Not all of the second season of the series is worthless, however. The toll the case and the TV show took on the Auto Salvage Yard is intriguing. Steven watching his parents age and their health decline is heart-wrenching. The gluttony of media is disturbing, specifically Ken Kratz’s book tour. How many Dr. Phil clips can one series have?
More captivating than Zellner and Avery’s journey to freedom is that of Dassey and his lawyers Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin, designated as a B-plot. It’s still up for debate whether or not Avery is guilty, but Dassey one-hundred-percent never should have gone to jail. No evidence connects him to the crime besides his confession, coerced by officers when he was still a minor. One excellent sequence is Nirider’s testimony to the seventh circuit appeals court.
However, these moments are few and far between. The second season pales in comparison to the first as an unnecessary afterthought. At 10 episodes with each being longer than an hour, if you’re not fully invested in the story, the continuation of the series can be quite the slog.