Serial tells the story of Hae Min Lee’s murder and the murky details surrounding the arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. It is a deeply engrossing example of the benefits of long-form journalism and podcasts as a medium.
I‘ve been listening to podcasts since some time between 2005 and 2006. To anyone who has a list of podcasts they regularly listen to, I don’t need to expound on how great they are. It’s talk radio on demand, basically, and it’s wonderful. I’ve spent innumerable hours washing dishes, mowing lawns, shoveling driveways, vacuuming, and driving listening while listening to podcasts to pleasurably pass the time.
I can’t believe how many people still have no idea what a podcast is or how to go about listening to them, so to the uninitiated, an explanation:
A podcast is a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.
But I didn’t intend to talk about all podcasts today, I intended to talk about one podcast specifically— Serial. Serial is a podcast that is actually a spin-off of another very popular podcast called This American Life. For the record, This American Life is also an excellent storytelling podcast, and is definitely worth your time. But when the people at This American Life realized how engrossing a story they had on their hands,1 they realized that their show’s format didn’t really allow for the proper time and attention they wanted to devote to it and so Serial was born.
Serial promises only one thing, really, and it’s stated in its tagline: “one story told week-to-week.” This is Serial‘s first iteration, first season, so all this fuss and attention2 is really all about Serial‘s first subject matter3.
This first season of the show focuses on reporter Sarah Koenig and her investigation into the murder of Baltimore-area high school student Hae Min Lee, and the arrest, charge and conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Koenig says she was contacted by family of Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, and asked to look into the case as the family felt the defence attorney mishandled Syed’s trial. Koening was hooked and as she lays out her findings, so are we.
What makes Serial interesting (the case’s ridiculously interesting plot-points aside) is that Koenig is basically sharing her findings as her investigation proceeds. She doesn’t necessarily know where (if anywhere) things are heading as the show is being released, and she makes clear that her feelings about the possibility of Syed’s innocence waver in constant flux.
Syed was convicted of the 1999 murder and has been in prison ever since. He remains there today. According to Koenig, she has spent over 30 hours talking on the phone with him, going over her findings, going over his story and trying to reconcile the schism that exists between Syed’s charm and intelligence and what we perceive “a murderer” to be like. Can someone who seems so nice, so charming, really be a cold-blooded killer?
What really makes the case worth investigating isn’t simply that Syed comes off as a generally nice person, it’s that the waters of the case are muddied at every turn: There is exactly no physical evidence linking Syed to the killing, rather, the case against Syed was built upon the testimony of a friend who claims to have helped Syed bury the body. Cell phone records4were used, shall we say, liberally? to corroborate the friend’s story.
I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers here and this isn’t a piece about what I think happened because truth be told, as a skeptic and a cynic, I’ve done my best to reserve judgement because like Koenig, my feelings have changed sometimes several times in one episode.
One thing I can say: whether Syed actually killed his ex-girlfriend or not, there is no way he should have been convicted with the case that was made against him and the mountains of reasonable doubt that pile up around it. I think that’s safe to say and I think once you decide that, you can get to the question of deciding whether you think he did it or not.
Trailer for Serial
The greatest compliment I can bestow upon any piece of art or entertainment, to me, is to call it thought-provoking. The really awesome thing about Serial is that it makes you think, and not just in a whodunit kind of way. Serial is examining a case that’s 15 years old so it really brings into focus the fickleness of human memory. Why do we remember some things and not others? The things we think we remember so vividly, how much of that is actually distorted? Serial has made me examine my own feelings about perceived guilt and innocence and the judgment we pass because of it; the importance of being able to see all sides of a story and examine the possibility of things you wish not to be true.
It’s also made me think about the flaws in our justice system. The Wire did a wonderful job of bringing to light the system’s reliance on statistics to quantify the unquantifiable. Serial has indirectly explored just how myopic an investigation can get, even when there’s no hint of any malicious intent on the part of any of the investigators. The problem is, when solving crimes is your job, your job is to solve crimes, not find the truth. We hope that those two things are the same, but often they are not. Cops are put under pressure to clear cases by getting arrests and building cases that can be successfully prosecuted. The system is built upon the presumption that only the truth could be successfully prosecuted, that only the person who committed the crime could possibly be prosecuted, yet we know this isn’t the case5.
MORE ABOUT SERIAL:
Also, a lot of questions have been raised about the ethics of the Serial: Is it okay to re-hash this story 15 years later in something like real-time when you know you’re bound to create conspiracy theorists and redditors tracking into people’s lives? I mean, if she investigated the story and it led nowhere, she could easily not pursue things further and those involved would only have the intrusion of a single reporter. By letting us in on the investigation6 as it happens, she’s inviting the public eye into the situation when the attention maybe isn’t warranted. Koenig doesn’t know Syed is innocent, it is entirely possible that he is guilty of the crime and is rightfully in prison, shoddy case against him or not. If that’s the case, there are a lot of lives that are being cultivated needlessly.
Personally, I think Koenig’s handled the whole thing with integrity. In an age where journalistic integrity is often treated as a punchline, I think Koenig has done well to walk the fine line between storytelling and defamation. You can definitely raise questions about the format of the show, but I think Koenig’s approach has been cautious and even-handed, even while intimately sharing her own feelings about things she learns. This show, for better or worse, is as much about her— and by extension, us, investigating this case as it is about the case itself and that’s what separates it from Fontlines and Datelines of the world.
My wife is an avid This American Life listener, far more so than I am, so she was anxiously anticipating Serial‘s release. I thought it sounded interesting and figured I would pick it up eventually as I usually tend to binge on things these days.
Finally, after yet another of my favourite writers waded into Serial, I figured enough was enough and binge I did. I suggest you do the same. Especially with all the prestige shows7 on hiatus right now, it’s easily the most entertaining thing out there. Also, I hope you allow Serial to be your gateway podcast— there’s a lot of great material out there.
I don’t know where this investigation is heading, if it’s even heading anywhere at all and it seems Koenig doesn’t, either. I’m struggling with whether to delve into the internet wormholes of supplemental material or wait until the series ends. For now, I’m sort of nibbling at the edges by reading old news clippings and the reactions of my regular stable of trusted writers. I haven’t jumped into any threads or blogs yet but after listening to the nine episodes currently available in two days, it’s safe to say Serial has consumed me as much as I’ve consumed it.
We’ll get to that in a minute↩
If this is the first of you hearing about Serial, I don’t know how you’ve managed it, but I can tell you that you need to change how you use social media because you’re obviously not following the right crowd.↩
Among so many other interesting questions the show raises, not just about the story its telling but about the medium of podcasts and myriad other things, is the question of whether the people at Serial will ever be able to tell a story as captivating as the one they’re telling now.↩
1999 cell phone records, that is.↩
I’m speaking generally here, not specifically about the Serial case↩
I have no idea how much time passes between Koenig finding something and her putting it into the show, but I can only assume that it ranges greatly depending on the focus of each episode, how much time it takes to verify, etc.↩
No, The Walking Dead is not a prestige show, despite my hearing that it’s improved.↩