If you frequent any entertainment websites, you’ve undoubtedly stumbled across an article on Serial, the true crime podcast that, if you’ll forgive the cliche, everyone is talking about. You probably gave the article a cursory look, discovered it was about a podcast and concluded that you don’t have time for such things. You’re already three episodes behind on The Walking Dead, you’ve got video games to play, movies to see, and that pile of books on your shelf just seems to get bigger and bigger. There’s no room in your life for a podcast. Well, I’m here to tell you, you need to make room. Serial is an engrossing mystery, an insightful glimpse into the justice system, and, at times, a surprisingly funny human comedy. The episodes aren’t too long either, with the lengthiest one clocking in at a little over 45 minutes. It’s perfect for a long car ride but also fascinating enough to take the place of some other form of entertainment. The Walking Dead can wait a few days and let’s face it, you’re never going to get to all those books anyway.
Hosted by This American Life’s Sarah Koening, Serial is about the disappearance and murder of a teenage girl from Baltimore named Hae Min Lee. She disappeared on January 13th, 1999 and her body was found buried in a shallow grave a few weeks later. Her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and has been in prison for the last fifteen years. But Adnan and various members of his family have always maintained his innocence. The police had no physical evidence to connect him to the crime, the prosecution’s entire case was based on the testimony of a very shady character, and some of the reasons Adnan supposedly had to kill her just don’t add up. That being said, Koenig is not on side or the other. She’s not doing this solely to prove Adnan’s innocence. She’s trying to get to the truth and is as in the dark as we are when it comes to some of the more puzzling aspects of the case.
Each episode focuses on a different element of the crime but all feature interviews with Adnan himself, recordings of police interrogations, and interviews that Koenig conducts with various friends, family members, and witnesses. I’ve heard a few people compare the podcast to True Detective and The Killing but that doesn’t make much sense to me. First of all, this is a real case, not a work of fiction. Second, there is no guarantee whatsoever that we are going to get a resolution to this whole mess. Koenig is still going through much of the material she collected and has stated she doesn’t even know when the story will conclude. And when it does conclude, we may be left with more questions than answers. Such is life though and that’s why it makes more sense to compare Serial to some of the great true crime documentaries like the Paradise Lost films, The Staircase, and Capturing The Friedmans. What sets Serial apart from those though is Koenig. She is the perfect surrogate for the audience as she makes you aware that she is not a detective and has no agenda other than to figure out what’s going on. She’s also a wonderfully gifted storyteller and when this is over, I hope she finds another true story to guide us through.
The main thing to take away from the podcast is how difficult it is to connect the dots in a case like this. Much of the state’s case against Adnan is based on the testimony of a witness whose story changed several times. Koenig tries to make sense of his testimony by interviewing a lot of people who knew Lee and Adnan but they don’t exactly remember things perfectly. Early on, she tries out an experiment, asking some friends of her own if they could remember exactly where they were and what they were doing one week ago. Most people didn’t have a clue. Try it yourself: where were you and what were you doing exactly one week ago? Not an easy question to answer is it? Now imagine someone asking you questions about where you were and what you were doing on a specific date 15 years ago. Even Adnan can barely remember what he was doing on January 13th 1999. This makes him look alternately guilty and innocent.
It’s a tough case to crack. Much of the podcast consists of conversations between Koenig and Adnan and he doesn’t sound at all like a murderer. He’s charming, funny, and usually in good spirits. But then again (you’ll find there are a lot of but then agains in Serial), maybe he’s just playing a role. There’s also a lot of evidence that does not paint him in a positive light. Still, if you’re looking for an answer as to whether or not he did it, Serial may not be able to provide it. Real life doesn’t generally work that way. And I strongly advise against falling down the reddit rabbit hole where people are posting all manner of insane theories. I was going to include a link to reddit but after looking at the theories for five minutes, I decided it’s not worth it. It’s nothing more than the rantings of a bunch of loons who think they’re listening to lurid mystery drama.
So why listen to Serial? Because of the way it draws us into a world we’re not familiar with no matter how many episodes of The Wire we’ve watched. You’d think listening to the court audio tapes from Adnan’s trial would be thrilling right? They’re not. They’re so boring Koenig barely ever plays them at all. But what about the police interrogations? Surely they’re full of angry cops yelling at suspects and threatening to beat them with phone books right? Nope. They sound like totally reasonable conversations, even when people are talking about burying a body. This is how cops work, it turns out. They don’t yell, they don’t threaten, they just question and question until they get to the heart of the matter. It’s fascinating to listen to because it shows how mundane the jobs of lawyers and cops can be. We’re used to seeing them act like cartoon characters or superheroes thanks to shows like Law and Order. It’s nice to see them as real people.
Then there’s the way people’s memories seem to shift and the way stories change over the years. One friend will remember the night of January 13th one way while another will remember it completely differently. It can be frustrating to listen to because it calls so many supposed facts into question but should we be that surprised by those types of responses? Haven’t you remembered a night differently than a friend did? Haven’t you read someone’s behavior as strange and then changed your mind about it later? Even so, it’s astounding to discover just how hard, how painstaking, and how frustrating it is to actively investigate something. It’s so easy to let things slide or details slip. One of Serial’s funniest and most thought provoking moments comes when Koenig learns of a guy who supposedly saw Adnan at track practice the night Lee was killed. When she gets him on the phone, he says, “Wow, I didn’t even know I was a part of this whole thing. No cop ever talked to me.” Statements like that throw our entire justice system into question because it makes us realize that it’s just not possible for detectives and lawyers to uncover every single crucial detail about a case. And that’s not because they’re doing a bad job or have already made up their minds about who is guilty and who is innocent. It’s simply because they are human beings who make mistakes.
At the center of all of this is Koenig and truthfully, she is the best reason to listen to Serial. She knows how to construct an episode, how to hold details back until they’re crucial to the story, and how to tease what’s to come next. She shares all our doubts about Adnan and asks all the same questions we would. The way she goes back and forth between believing Adnan guilty or innocent reflects how we feel about him too. She also has the uncanny ability to make even the most boring aspects of the case interesting. You’d think listening to someone talk about fifteen year old cell tower technology would be duller than a twenty hour seminar on carbon dating but you’d be wrong. Koenig makes every subject, no matter how minute, into a compelling part of the narrative and you won’t want to miss a second because maybe, just maybe, buried somewhere in this mountain of information is the truth. Maybe she’ll find it in the coming weeks and maybe she won’t, I don’t know. All I know is: I’ll be listening. You should be to.