Making a Murderer fairly bursts at the seams. You get the feeling that filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, after spending 10 years working on it, couldn't bear to part with a single jailhouse phone call or videotaped interrogation. Their documentary's 10 episodes, which went up on Netflix on Friday, often push past an hour, clocking in at 64 or 66 minutes. If you're planning to binge, clear some extra time.
The serious long-form true-crime documentary is the glam genre of the moment, coming off the success of HBO's six-episode The Jinx and NPR's 8 1/2-hour podcast, "Serial." But watching Making a Murderer is a different experience. Even in the age of the high-quality limited series, it's rare to come this close to the feeling of reading a book — immersive, compulsive and unpredictable but also exhausting and sometimes mundane and repetitive.
For the most part, the series's novelistic qualities carry the day. The real-life tale that Ricciardi and Demos found (through a 2005 article in the New York Times) is endlessly layered and confounding, with a large, rich cast of characters, who take turns carrying the story.
The title reflects a central question about Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man whose three-decade battle with the justice system provides the series' framework. Convicted of rape and other crimes in 1985, he served 18 years in prison before being exonerated by new DNA evidence and becoming a prime exhibit for the importance of innocence-project investigations.
But just two years after his release, he was charged with murder in a new case, and in 2007 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The series presents the two popular explanations for Avery's seemingly counterintuitive story. Assuming that he was indeed innocent of the first crime, did the many years he spent wrongfully imprisoned change him into someone who would commit a brutal murder? Or was he made into a murderer — in other words, framed — by the law enforcement officials of Manitowoc County, Wis., who were angered and embarrassed by his exoneration and a subsequent lawsuit he filed against them?
The conspiracy story is where the drama is, of course, and it's the through line of the series. Its convolutions are mind-bending, and the evidence for police and prosecutorial malfeasance is both abundant and elusive.
Making a Murderer has several other stories to tell as well. One is a familiar tale of social class and provincial small-mindedness, with the middle-class denizens and institutions of Manitowoc County united in scorn against the Averys, who owned an auto salvage business and were thought of as the hillbillies on the edge of town. When the filmmakers need a bridge between interviews or courtroom scenes, their constant fallback is footage of the salvage yard, acres of junked cars scattered across the green Wisconsin hills.
That visual tic is representative of the straightforward, not terribly imaginative sensibilities of Ricciardi and Demos, who use twangy guitar music to emphasize the Midwestern Gothic trappings of their story and indulge in too many moody shots of the exteriors of jails and courthouses. (They also lean heavily on local television news reports as a narrative crutch.)
But they make up for it with tenaciousness. Their obviously exhaustive pursuit of telephone recordings and interrogation and courtroom video yields a succession of astounding scenes, and they insinuate themselves into the lives of the Avery family in a way that pays steadily mounting emotional dividends.
And that, finally, is the real distinction of Making a Murderer: its almost Dickensian account of the tragedy of the Averys. The uniformly stoic family members shift allegiances over the years, while Steven Avery's parents, as movingly bewildered and terrified as any fictional creations, steadfastly believe in their son's innocence, even as their long battle takes down their business and any sense they may have had of belonging to a community.
Avery, heard mostly in prison phone calls and exhibiting a blank affect that leaves you uncertain about how to read him, becomes a secondary character as the series goes along. In his place, his parents, a teenage nephew who becomes ensnared in the second case, the nephew's mother and so on take center stage in a story whose astonishing twists and turns are balanced by acute anguish.
Avery's nephew Brendan Dassey, goaded into a confession by highly questionable tactics seen on tape, tells his mother that he was "guessing" what the interrogators wanted.
"That's what I do with my homework, too," he adds.
In heartbreaking moments like those, questions of guilt and innocence, although they're the heart of the series, begin to seem remote.