By my count, the two most binge-able shows in recent memory have been Serial (season one) and Making a Murderer. The stories both follow the same pattern: A man is accused of murder, he insists on his innocence, and a documentary crew dives into the case files to investigate.
[HBO’s The Jinx had a similar feel — though in this case, the systemic failures were in the defendant’s favor.]
This “Injustice Programming” is quickly becoming a genre. SundanceTV has its own entry on the way — a reissue of 2004’s The Staircase (which Making a Murderer‘s creative team cited as an inspiration). So, it’s worth asking: Why do we love these show so much?
True crime has always had a hold on the public. The pirate Henry Avery had a bestselling book written about him while he was still off pirating. Jesse James was made famous through dime store fiction. But Serial and Making a Murderer aren’t just salacious Jack the Ripper yarns. They ask us to reevaluate guilt that a jury has already settled on. They show us police missteps and broader justice system failings. They’re not the sort of stories that reduce easily to a great elevator pitch, so why is this particular archetype so very compelling?
It’s tough to isolate all the factors. We can figure out which brain receptors are stimulated when we feel the sting of injustice-by-proxy, but science only tells part of the story. There are probably hundreds of threads that pull people into the worlds of Adnan Syed and Steven Avery — some that have to do with the stories themselves and others that concern the storytelling methods.
Still, because both shows practically beg for us to speculate, I’ll offer the best reason I’ve come up with as to why these shows grab us: We’re empathetic beings.
It’s a nice thought, right? Empathy is an extraordinary quality — so important that it creates a dividing line between different species of animals. It’s our gift and curse to feel the pain of others so deeply. My girlfriend sobbed when she watched Brendan Dassey get cajoled into confessing his guilt. Her eyes welled up every time Steven Avery’s parents tottered on screen. As an immigrant to the U.S., she feels deeply distrustful of the justice system and is convinced that Avery, Dassey, and Syed were all railroaded. Other viewers manifest their empathy in different ways. They create petitions, dig into “The Nisha Call” or study Google maps of The German Man’s house.
Point being, when we consume these stories, we truly feel for the defendant. We feel for them and we’re able to, on some level, understand their outlook. We might not know what it’s like to stand trial for a crime we didn’t commit, but we’ve all been falsely accused or slandered on some level. Injustice is one of the most relatable narratives there is.
That may also explain why the families of the victims, who’ve been so close to complete closure, loathe our collective obsession. Their empathy is with their lost loved ones, and when the attention is drawn back to the accused, it creates its own sense of injustice. Being that these families are convinced of the guilt of the defendants, they naturally find the public’s empathy maddening.
So, what about that? What if Syed and Avery are both murderers? What if, as Sarah Koenig worries during Serial, we’re all getting duped by charming sociopaths?
I’d argue that this possibility is part of what titillates us. Because of course we can empathize with an innocent person, but what if we’re accidentally empathizing with a murderer? Isn’t that what Silence of the Lambs and Breaking Bad made us do? It’s scary. It’s unnerving. It creates questions about our own base instincts. Aren’t the good guys supposed to be able to recognize the bad guys?
The fact that we can find Steven Avery or Adnan Syed charming is fine if they’re as innocent as we desperately long for them to be. But if they’re guilty, it means all of the empathetic energy we spend on these shows has been wasted on cold-blooded killers. (In our defense, we’re never given much of a chance to fully connect with Hae Min Lee or Teresa Halbach).
So, we root for our various Perry Mason proxies — Koenig, Rabia Chaudry, Dean Strang, and Jerry Buting. We rage over unreliable cell-tower pings and planted keys. Because deep down, we are optimists. Deep down, we want to believe that people are, by nature, good. Especially charming people like Adnan Syed and Steven Avery. And if we discover one day that we were wrong…
Maybe it’s not the absolute worst thing, to have inadvertently empathized with a murderer. Maybe it would serve as a reminder that even murderers retain a shred of humanity (as scary as that is). My dad, a psychologist, never let me get away with thinking someone was just plain old crazy. He insisted that they are products of factors, some genetic and some societal. As a religious man, he also had a firm belief that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
If we find out that Syed and Avery are guilty, we’ll surely retract our empathy. It takes a rare breed to knowingly empathize with killers. But should we regret how deeply we ever felt for these men?
I’m not so sure. Empathy is a muscle that needs to be pushed and stretched. It has limits, but we have to test those limits to truly know them. I’d argue that we’re always better for having empathized, even in the face of evil. Particularly in the face of evil. Empathy is one of those rare things that is never wasted.
With any luck, maybe all this practice will make us better at empathizing with the people around us. Even those who aren’t accused of murder.