In case you haven’t noticed, primetime TV is full of crime mystery programs. CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery, Dateline NBC and on and on. These are “real life” docu-dramas usually about a murder in a small town, and in almost every case the husband or wife did it. As a recent interview with an NBC producer who said plain and simple, “murder sells.”
Then there is the Steven Avery case in Wisconsin. It was so compelling that Netflix produced a ten part series chronicling the case which started with a young man Steven Avery being convicted of sexual assault and serving 18 years in prison. Then, DNA testing proved him to be innocent and he was released. But to recoup something for the time he spent in prison, he sued the county and police department for $36 million dollars. A year later a woman who had visited his business (car parts lot) went missing. The remains of her body were found in an incinerator on his property and he was tried and convicted for murder.
The case was defended by Avery’s lawyers as a set-up by the police to put him back in prison after he filed his lawsuit. The argument included planted evidence, dirty cops and all. It was a compelling trial, all captured on cameras and produced by Netflix.
As Avery languishes in prison, the story continues. Many who saw the Netflix series believe he was indeed framed. Then the D.A. countered with evidence that the TV series didn’t include that provided even more proof of his guilt.
When real life hits the silver screen, or the silver TV screen, everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt — both ways. Is there such a thing as a truly objective documentary? When editors are deciding what to film, what words to narrate and how to edit, can it ever be truly objective? Every decision that a producer makes can make a difference one way or another. And this holds true for dramatic murder stories and news stories such as 60 Minutes.
Case in point: Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker. But he is hardly impartial in the subjects he chooses. He doesn’t even pretend to be. He starts with a point of view and then structures his films to prove his opinion. This is quite different from beginning with a clean slate and searching for the real story. I am not saying TV producers have a vested interest in whether someone is guilty or innocent. They couldn’t care less. But they do care about cases that are dramatic and compelling, as that attracts viewers. That, they care about.
There is a fine line between reality and entertainment, and many believe they are the same. News, some argue, is just entertainment said with a serious face. Unless it is the local weatherperson, who seems to exist for comic relief.