I was stretched out on the couch under a blanket. Twilight. The neighborhood remained quiet, but I couldn’t get back to sleep after letting the dog outside. I queued up a much talked about podcast. Hours later when Stockton woke up and got ready for a bike ride, I was still on the couch listening to the same podcast, the first season of Serial.
The series followed the murder case of a young woman who went missing after school in Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend was serving jail time for the crime, but as the story unfolded, doubt bloomed wide like daisy petals in the sunlight. Maybe it was because I live in Maryland, too. Maybe it was because it’s easy to remember the tension in high school. Early on, the compelling narration–this was radio after all–hooked me. My little sleuthing heart, nurtured by Agatha Christie and Tess Gerritsen novels wanted to understand, wanted to create links.
Last month I tried Serial season two. The topic didn’t resonate with me and with disappointment, I quit. I craved another true crime show to capture my investigative imagination. Over the holidays, I searched for options. Scrolling through choices on Netflix, I selected the already popular and controversial Making a Murderer. Stockton and I microwaved popcorn and parked it on the couch.
The opening credits with snow-covered cars on the 40-acre Avery salvage lot begged for symbolism. We listened to prison phone calls and local news footage and family and lawyers talking about the original criminal trial and civil trial. White text on a black background appeared at times to note certain events. Stockton would read them aloud for me. Overhead shots of the town and people going about their daily activities provided texture. Otherwise, it was people in conversations and interviews and court proceedings. Stockton, who prefers his crime on the page, grew weary and went to bed. I watched another episode, pausing at text, standing close enough to the TV to read it. Finally, as I hit Play for the umpteenth time, I saw the Audio and Subtitles menu.
Well, duh. Netflix has audio description on certain programs. How could I forget this. The terriers didn’t care as they shifted around on the furniture, but I was pumped. No more up and down. With audio description, my husband was released from duty the next night, too. Stockton could paint in the dining room while I dealt with the dogs and watched the State of Wisconsin try a man for murder who they had previously wrongfully convicted of rape and imprisoned for 18 years.
The show dragged a few times, but I knew there were plenty of facts to convey in this complicated story. It appealed to me when the filmmakers used casual news footage and spent so much time with the Avery family on their property. Hearing the distinct accent of the people living in Manitowoc County reminded me these are real people with real heartache and struggles.
For many people, as this Slate article by June Thomas points out, the lack of a narrator puts viewers in a mindset of discovering connections for themselves and developing meaning on their own. Audio description sort of cuts into this presentation when the paragraphs would appear and the Netflix describer would start reading for me. It’s hard though to confuse her voice for a person featured in the program. It’s clearly a break in tone. Also, the body language details I would otherwise miss like a person frowning or glancing away and the present signage and documents like news headlines and police papers were not lost on these eyes. Audio description allowed me to follow along like everybody else.
Millions of people listened to Serial and millions will watch Making a Murderer. We all relate to the need for answers and the inevitable slow pace of justice. In this visual world, some of us need a little description, but we draw our own conclusions.
Have you watched Making a Murderer or listened to Serial? Did you know Netflix offers audio description? Do you like true crime stories and if so, who are some of your favorite crime writers? Have you lost a day of your life to a Law & Order marathon? Tell me about it.