Monday 24 October 2016

'Making A Murderer' takes us down to the shadowland

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

What will they think of next?

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You've been watching television programmes in one form or another for most of your life, you've seen a million stories which are broadly in the same territory as Making A Murderer - a documentary about a police investigation into a murder, a courtroom drama, a miscarriage of justice, a lot of official misbehaviour.

You know all that stuff, or at least you think you know it, and then you realise that somebody has taken it to a place in which you have not been before.

Partly it's just the technology, the fact that Netflix allows you to watch an entire 10-part series in the one sitting, if you so desire. But why would you so desire?

The invention of the box set has enabled you to watch any amount of episodes one after the other, but this is not quite the same thing as the urge to watch Making A Murderer until you can't watch it any more.

To watch a box set in the one sitting feels like an indulgence, if you can find the time, to do likewise with Making A Murderer feels like a necessity. And because few of us can recall such a thing happening in our television lives, because we have not felt that need, we have been unprepared.

I made the mistake of starting to watch it late in the evening, reaching the end of the third episode around midnight, realising that the only way to do this properly was to keep going all the way through until six in the morning. Which I was determined to do.

It was only when I started to lose consciousness towards the end of episode seven, that I realised with a feeling of deep sadness that I wasn't going to make it. Many others have reported a similar experience, calling to mind the dance marathons of the Great Depression in which not even the promise of a cash prize could keep the contestants from collapsing.

And the urge to keep watching was all the more remarkable due to the fact that Making A Murderer didn't have the kind of narrative arc with which we are familiar - the arc in which everything gets very bad for a while, and then maybe even a bit worse, but at a certain stage somehow it starts to turn, and we are left with some consolation.

Though we were being presented with a complete picture of a society that is profoundly damaged at every significant level, though we were watching scenes in which a young man with - to put it mildly - 'learning difficulties' is being led by trained professionals into signing 'confessions', we kept thinking that it must take that turn for the better. That the heroic defence lawyers will somehow get it done. That some part of this superstructure of institutionalised badness will give way, as it tends to do in any right-thinking drama series.

Indeed after eight episodes, when everything looked horrible, many of us would have made the calculation that there are still two episodes to go, which is certainly enough time for something to go right. And yet there were moments when you felt that you might be losing your bearings in that shadowland between the reality and the illusion.

After all, even the most 'real' documentary is 'made up' to some extent, it is manipulated in many ways, and not all of them are necessarily benign.

Indeed, if any of these Netflix types think they have changed the world completely, the idea of real events being "heightened" and turned into a work of art brings us way back to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the New Journalism of the 1960s - which reminds me that I devoured In Cold Blood as ravenously as I watched Making A Murderer, and which also makes me wonder if a similar level of imagination was being brought to bear on both works. In some parts of this documentary, for example, there would be a recording of dialogue which sounded too good, too perfect an illustration of all that is broken in the communities of Manitowoc and of greater Wisconsin, too well worded, without the hemming and hawing that punctuates our conversations.

So you'd start to wonder is this some esoteric piece of work in which a 'real life' story is scripted just like a work of fiction, a bit like a 'spoof' documentary with a serious purpose - a kind of experiment in form and substance to test the limits of our scepticism, to place in front of us a vision of an appalling system of law enforcement, to see if we believe that such a thing could possibly be true.

One of the heroic lawyers takes the view that the FBI wouldn't be of much use in this case which challenges the State, other than to do whatever it could to assist the State in its dastardly endeavours.

He says it almost casually, as if everyone knows this - again you're thinking, is somebody playing us here, like a Stradivarius?

Now the case has been handed over to that other FBI, the Federal Bureau of the Internet, to which I am humbly submitting this theory, just to get them started for the day.

Like a bent copper, I hope it's right, but I know it's wrong.

Sunday Independent

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