Tuesday 25 October 2016

Making a hit: How one documentary put Netflix ahead of the TV posse

* Making a Murderer, Netflix

Published 16/01/2016 | 07:00

Addictive TV: Wisconsin man Steven Avery is the subject of Netflix documentary 'Making a Murderer'
Addictive TV: Wisconsin man Steven Avery is the subject of Netflix documentary 'Making a Murderer'

When Netflix first came along it was seen by many as an interesting experiment, while the TV industry looked on it with a degree of angry confusion and adopted a wait-and-see approach.

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In fact, the reaction of traditional TV networks was remarkably similar to how the record industry used to respond to new inventions - by sticking their head in the sand and hoping that everything would just work out.

After all, there are still some of us old enough to remember how everything from Betamax, laser discs and DAT were going to be game changers in home entertainment and they all came and went before, ultimately, something as seemingly trivial as Napster eventually destroyed the recording industry as we know it and ushered in this brave new world where most musicians simply cannot make a living.

Would Netflix be Betamax or Napster? Or, to take a less binary approach, would Netflix - and its younger cousins Apple and Amazon Prime - change TV as we know it or simply complement it?

Certainly, the introduction of Chromecast, which allows you to watch streamed programmes on your actual TV, as opposed to squinting at your laptop screen, has ensured that Netflix is now an acceptable option for even the most cranky, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists.

People like me, in other words, who tend to look at new developments with a degree of irrational suspicion.

One of the accusations, or predictions, directed at Netflix was that it would signal the end of communal viewing, destroying those so-called watercooler moments when everyone sat in their own living room watched roughly the same TV channels and then discussed what they had seen in school or work the next day

How would that ever happen if everyone was stuck in their own private online TV set, watching a million and one disparate programmes and never connecting with each other?

After all, one of the great joys of television is the sense of community it can engender in people and how, even when those people are in different houses, there is a sense of shared experience as they watch the same broadcast.

So, given the fact that Netflix was apparently going to further atomise society and turn people into monosyllabic grunters who were stuck in their own virtual TV station, watching whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, rather than being beholden to the schedules like the traditional TV viewer, it's rather ironic that the first watercooler moment of the year is, of all things, on Netflix.

I don't know about you, but it feels as if every conversation I've had for the last month has somehow turned to Making A Murderer.

It's not only the most talked about show of 2016, I can't actually think of a show which has quite captured the imagination - and conversations - of people as much as this since, perhaps, the final episode of The Sopranos.

Or maybe it's just a meeja thing?

After all, The Sopranos may have been the most influential TV show in a decade, but it was on HBO and had relatively tiny viewing figures.

But when something attaches itself to the zeitgeist like a piece of malware that keeps popping up, whether you want it to or not, sometimes it's as easy to just go with the flow and see what the fuss is about.

But there's one crucial caveat - the product has to be worth the hype. Making A Murderer is worth the hype and so much, much more.

I came late to the table and didn't watch the first episode until this Monday, which in hipster terms makes me, like, so behind the curve.

I watched the first episode and then the second and what started out as a casual reconnoitre became a full-scale immersion.

I've never watched 10 hours of anything before, but I did on Monday evening. And on Monday night. And then into the not-so-early hours of Tuesday morning.

Normally the preserve of arthouse cinema devotees, the idea of spending 10 straight hours watching one subject is a daunting one. In fact, the only comparable documentary I can think of would be Shoah, Claude Lanzman's seminal nine-hour Holocaust epic.

I tried to sit through all of that, but after four hours of hugely important but unrelentingly horrific testimony from survivors and perpetrators, I took to my bed for two days and was too emotionally scalded to even speak to people for that time.

Making A Murderer isn't that horrific - how could it possibly be? - but it is one of the most engrossing, captivating, spell-binding and utterly infuriating programmes I've ever watched.

It is also brilliantly structured, finishing each episode on a cliff-hanging revelation which insists that you immediately go to the next instalment. If you think I've been rather vague about the premise of the show, you're right.

But that's only because each episode contains so many spoilers that it is virtually impossible to accurately convey crucial plot twists without ruining it for those who have yet to watch.

The bare bones of the story are as follows: a hillbilly outcast, from a family of possibly inbred Wisconsin hillbillies, is arrested for the attempted rape of a woman while she was out jogging.

The young Steve Avery has form as a bad 'un. Uneducated to the point of illiteracy, he fell in with a bad crowd and apart from picking up a criminal jacket for a spate of burglaries he had also once set fire to a cat, which is never a good sign, least of all for the cat.

What looks like a slam dunk for the local cops soon becomes more complex and what follows is a genuinely shocking and horrifying case of police and judicial corruption.

Avery didn't fit in and came from a family that didn't fit in and even incontrovertible evidence, including the confession of the actual attacker, was insufficient to prevent an appalling miscarriage of justice.

What happened after that is so bizarre and outlandish that it wouldn't have been acceptable as the plot for a particularly mental episode of Law And Order SVU.

Two quick, spoiler-free points - people who say this case proves the innate inequities of the American judicial system have it wrong - its very transparency is what righted the initial injustice.

As for what happens next? Well, let's just say don't believe the hype and remember that this is a programme made by advocates, not passive documentarians.

I have my own views on what transpires, and it seems to run contrary to what most other viewers felt. When you watch it yourself, you'll know what I mean.

Irish Independent

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