15 years ago a student was murdered in Baltimore and her ex-boyfriend was found guilty of the crime and sent to prison for life. He remains in prison today, still protesting his innocence. Serial (one story told a week at a time and sponsored with varying degrees of annoyance by Mailchimp) is a podcast that has become the chattering classes’ key discussion topic as it takes an in-depth look at the case of Hae-Min Lee and whether it really was Adnan Syed who killed her.
It was around episode 5 that ‘the world’ (twitter) went somewhat crazy for Serial. It’s very easy to see why. Sarah Koenig is a brilliant narrator and each episode to this point was rather cunningly constructed, throwing in doubt and revelation, as well as a cast of characters to make this supposedly mundane, straightforward case become something altogether compelling. There were concerns: weren’t we having too much Cluedo fun for what was actually a real-life case, were we being fed lines just to keep things interestings, was this really just middle-class privileged types being tourists in a gloomy part of last-century Maryland?
Not all of these doubts went away. Obviously, Hae couldn’t speak in a programme about her own murder but the absence of her family (although this was explained) meant that she felt very much like an optional add-on. We could have had any murder victim whereas we very much needed the mix of thoughts that her convicted killer generated. That’s not a nice feeling and Koening never quite managed to address it properly. The idea of misery tourism did at least seem to lift as a wider perspective came in in later episodes – but then I’d read Jon Ronson’s interviewing Adnan’s family who were feeling shamed all over again and wonder just whether this really was in any way positive. Finally, the Cluedo fun? By the mid-point we were running out of new revelations and picking holes in specific bits of the story so that did die down a little but it never truly went away and with more ideas coming out even towards the end of the final episode it did remain part of the pleasure of listening.
But beyond the ‘is he innocent or not’ Serial was remarkable for how engagingly it took a single case and made it about what you can know, and what you simply can’t. Koenig boiled down the facts at the very end and there was remarkably little there. After twelve weeks listening to a myriad voices and so many different possibilities all you’re left with is a dead body and a few definite actions, all of which are open to interpretation. And, spoiler alert, Adnan is still in prison and looking like being there for a while.
Overall, I very much enjoyed Serial and have spent a significant chunk of the past couple of months demanding that acquaintances drop everything and listen. I liked, whereas some did not, the occasionally off-hand narration style although I found it baffling that it took until deep into the series before Koenig voiced that maybe, just maybe, being Muslim had counted against Adnan once the case went to trial. Mostly, I liked the way ideas bounced around and that the depth of the programme – and the fact that each episode was put together so near to ‘broadcast’ – meant that those ideas could be returned to. I did also like the way so many people got the chance to tell their version of the story.
For the listeners it’s been a twelve-week journey that’s been engaging, challenging and kinda fun. We still don’t know everything, or really, anything. And that opens up a whole new set of conversations. But we should keep in mind, even as we debate Jay’s story, or cell-phone records, or why would a guy do this or that, that the reason the story is being told at all is because at some point on January 13, 1999 Hae-Min Lee was murdered and her body left, buried, in a park. No amount of quirky, engaging investigation or thesis on what we cannot know is going to change that fact.