It’s been quite a run recently for crime documentaries. In the past year or so, three long-form crime documentaries have attracted a lot of attention. All involve men alleged to have behaved badly, as, I am afraid, we often do. In fact, all three involve men accused of murder.
Then came Making a Murderer, a ten-part series on Steven Avery, which was made available for streaming on Netflix in December of 2015.
And, most recently, there was O.J.: Made in America, a five-part series on O.J. Simpson, which first aired in the Spring of 2016.
These three films generated a lot of binge-watching and water-cooler conversation.
HBO reported that 750,000 people watched the first episode of The Jinx when it first aired and about 3.4 million watched some part of the show within its first few weeks of availability.
Although Netflix does not publish viewership reports, the evidence suggests that Making a Murderer was even more popular. Adweek estimated that 19.3 million people watched the series in a little more than a month.
O.J.: Made in America may have put up the most impressive numbers of all. ESPN reported that 3.4 million viewers sat down to watch the first showing of the first episode, and, by late June, the network was claiming that the show had been seen by 35 million viewers.
It may not be possible to compare these numbers, apples to apples, because it’s not entirely clear what each of the various networks considers a “viewer.” If a single person sits down six nights in a row to watch episodes, does that count as one viewer or six? As far as I can tell, the people who write press releases for ESPN think it means six viewers. Perhaps the publicists at the other networks do as well. I can’t say for sure.
But, even allowing for exaggeration, puffery, and variation in counting strategies, these are remarkable numbers. It is truly amazing that millions of Americans have watched these documentaries — and even more amazing if you consider that all three series require a significant investment in terms of time.
The Jinx runs for 279 minutes. The O.J. series runs for 464 minutes. And the Avery film runs for 666 minutes, which, of course, is THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. When this curious fact becomes a key ingredient in popular conspiracy theories on the internet, remember: you read that number here first! But of course the number begs the question: who is the BEAST? Is it Avery? Or is it the Manitowoc Country Police Department?
Looking at the viewership numbers cited above, one is tempted to say that documentary has “arrived,” that Americans are now beginning to appreciate non-fiction film in a way they have not previously. If that is really what has happened, then nobody will be more delighted than I will be. But I am skeptical. Do these numbers really prove that America has learned to love documentaries, or do they prove that America loves violent stories and murder mysteries? I strongly suspect it is the latter. I suspect that what these numbers tell us is: if it bleeds, it leads – even if it’s a documentary.
It is also tempting to conclude that American attention spans are getting longer. But, again, I am skeptical. If you look at the viewership numbers for The Jinx, you will see that the number of viewers who watched the last episode, in which Durst appears to confess, not realizing that his microphone is still “live,” is more than twice as large, indeed is almost three times as large, as the number of viewers who watched the middle episodes, in which he does not confess. This suggests that there were hundreds of thousands of people who felt compelled to watch the “reveal” but didn’t feel the need to watch the rest of the series. After all, one can push out a lot of tweets in 279 minutes – or so I am told.
But, even with these disclaimers, I think the popularity of these series has to be seen as a very positive development. There are signs that a lot of Americans can be persuaded to take an interest in at least certain kinds of documentaries.
Of the three films, I enjoyed The Jinx the most. I found the story compelling and I found Durst genuinely creepy. Watching the series, I was reminded of a time, a decade or two ago, when I sat up late reading Flannery O’Connor stories and then felt the need to get up out of bed and make sure all of the doors were locked — for, in a world that has such people in it, it would be height of foolishness to leave one’s doors unlocked.
I would rank Making a Murderer second. Although it was too long to hold me rapt for all 666 minutes, it did hold my attention, and I gasped loudly, with millions of others, when it was revealed that a vial of blood entered into evidence had been tampered with, apparently pierced by a syringe of some sort. Up to that point I had been somewhat skeptical about the defense theory that the police tampered with the evidence in order to frame Avery. But at that moment it suddenly seemed frighteningly possible that they did.
My least favorite of the three was O.J.: Made in America, perhaps because I lived through the story as it unfolded. As a boy, I watched Simpson playing football and had O.J. Simpson football cards. I remember watching him run through airports in those Hertz ads, and even remember my dad telling me what a big deal it was that a black man had been chosen as a spokesman for the company. My father was an American historian, and he understood the significance of that choice in a way that I could not at the time. I remember the Naked Gun movies, too; and, of course, I remember the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife, the car chase, the arrest, and the murder trial. So the story was familiar, and I had already worked out my thinking about Simpson. (Guilty!) But there were some interesting bits in the series. I found Simpson’s former agent to be one of the more compelling interviewees. He served Simpson for a long time, but eventually disgust caught up with him and overtook him.
The O.J. film and the Avery film seem to me to resonate in certain ways. A major theme in both is evidence. Modern forensic evidence can be very compelling – I mean blood work, DNA analysis, and fiber analysis. These can be powerful tools for seeing that justice is gone. But if the cops are dirty and are willing to plant evidence, then all of the most up-to-date forensic techniques may be for naught.
In Making a Murderer, the defense attorneys suggest that prosecutors may have made up their mind about Steven Avery’s guilt and then planted blood and bones to make the evidence fit their theory. The filmmakers seem to find this theory persuasive, and so do many viewers of the film.
In the Simpson case, the defense made a similar argument – that the forensic evidence had been planted by racist LAPD cops — and the members of the jury, mostly African-Americans, who had years of experience with thuggish and racist behavior by LAPD cops, found this argument persuasive and were willing to set aside whole rafts of forensic evidence. Simpson’s blood was found at the scene of the murders, along with a bloody glove and a set of bloody footprints. A trail of blood led away from the crime scene. Simpson’s blood, Nicole’s Brown’s blood, and Ronald Goldman’s blood were found in O.J’s car and also at O.J.’s house. To many people all of this seemed to be irrefutable evidence of Simpson’s guilt. I certainly took it as such. But, of course, that is only true if we believe that the blood was actually deposited in those places by Simpson.
I hope these films will encourage a national conversation about evidence, policework, and the planting of evidence. The police need to be careful. If people come to believe that policemen frequently or routinely plant evidence, then even the best evidence may come to be seen as no evidence at all.