Netflix’s new hit series Making a Murderer (note: potential spoilers below) capitalizes on the Serial phenomenon with the story of Steven Avery—a Wisconsin man convicted of the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten in the 1980s. Avery was exonerated in 2003–then charged with the murder of another woman, Teresa Halbach, just two years later. Making a Murderer follows the seemingly implausible events leading up to Avery’s second trial, and considers the idea that Manitowoc County officials planted evidence, conspiring to put Avery back behind bars.

This is not the first time that the true-crime genre has popped into the stratosphere of pop-culture sophistication. Truman Capote’s 1960s thriller In Cold Blood comes to mind, as does Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974), which covered the Manson murders and remains the biggest-selling true-crime book in US history. Edmund Pearson, viewed by many as the man who spearheaded true-crime journalism in the 1920s, published his work in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

So what happened in between true crime’s arty reputation in the mid-20th century and the genre renaissance of today?

Arguably, a rise in public interest for true-crime stories of social importance. A cultural obsession with glitzy, sensationalized cases—the murder of JonBenét Ramsey and the O.J. Simpson trial, for example—defined the genre in the 1980s and ’90s. This newest crop of true-crime entertainment is taking a different tack. Instead of fetishizing the criminal and the crime, Serial and Making a Murderer take a long, hard look at the contexts in which such atrocities arise, how we as a society deal with them, and whether our methods of delivering justice are as sound as they are purported to be.

Serial dug deep into peoples’ preconceived notions surrounding interracial dating, Muslim-American culture, modern teen masculinity, and the pressure on law enforcement to build clean narratives around crimes. Making a Murderer dissects society’s need to contain so-called undesirables in our communities, and how righteousness and bias can completely railroad our constitutionally mandated judicial processes.

True crime has often been defined by half-truths, glamorizations, stretched facts, and insinuations. Today, it’s becoming more about interrogating our criminal justice system and examining our theories on criminality and law enforcement.

These media-inspired discourses can produce major results. More than 15 years after his conviction, Adnan Syed has been granted a hearing so that his lawyers might present new evidence in his favor. Following Making a Murderer’s release, 160,000 people signed onto petitions to free Steven Avery.

“I think the film does a good job of raising broader systemic issues that could have happened anywhere,” one of Avery’s defense attorneys, Dean Strang, told The New York Daily News. “We are still working for free for him informally—and I suspect it’s going to get more formal soon here.”

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