As this goes online, it’s 2:15 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 13, and unless something happens, you should be able to finish it in under 21 minutes. If those facts mean nothing to you, then you didn’t become addicted to Serial, the podcast spun off from Public Radio’s This American Life show. Serial began late last fall, and finished up its 12 episodes late last year, spending one episode each (from 28 to 55 minutes) dissecting a murder that, if you believe the jury system, started exactly 16 years ago this minute, and ended fewer than 21 minutes later with the death of a teenaged girl at the hands of her jilted boyfriend.
Only chances are, you don’t believe that.
Serial was an addictive experience, and after it ended, there were quite a few critics who cried foul. Why? Apparently, because they feel they wasted 8.5 hours of their lives listening to, and countless hours caring about, what happened to Adnan Syed. When he was 18, he was arrested for the murder by strangulation of his ex-girlfriend. There was no material evidence against him — no witnesses to the crime, no fingerprints, no DNA, and barely a motive — he was allegedly upset she dumped him, though no one said he was angry, violent or planned revenge.
No one, that is, except Jay.
Jay was the only real witness, a drug dealer who claimed Adnan called him at 2:36 p.m. on Jan. 13 and confessed to having just killed the girl, and solicited Jay’s help in disposing of the body. That was the first time Jay knew what had happened. Except that Jay told the police at another time that Adnan told him days before of his plan to kill the girl.
So which is it?
I found it strange, listening to this show, that folks would honestly expect producers of a podcast to retroactively solve a 16 year old crime, but that seemed to be one of the major reactions. Why didn’t you end the story for us?
To which I say: What the fuck?!
First, consider this: Serial is not journalism, and its host/reporter/producer Sarah Koenig not a journalist. Yes, she has a journalism background, but she is an entertainer. (I’ve heard Ira Glass say as much.) I love This American Life, but it is not a show in a vacuum. It knows it tells compelling stories in a compelling way, and it’s structured precisely to do that. Are they “reporting”? Absolutely. But they are also perpetually commenting on their own feelings and reactions and misgivings and conflicts. And they do so in such a way to tell a juicy tale.
Second, Serial is not something else, either: A piece of fiction. They don’t get to make up the ending they want, or create theories to fit the facts just to satisfy some need in listeners. They tell the story as they find it.
Third, and something Koenig says repeatedly on the show, Serial‘s staff are not detectives. They aren’t employed to solve a crime, but to report on the aftermath of it. Again, for entertainment. And damned good entertainment at that.
That said, Koenig did infuriate me in the way only armchair liberals can. She clearly feels for Adnan, and thinks he got a raw deal (there was evidence that his attorney totally dropped the ball on an alibi witness, something that has actually led to Adnan getting a new hearing in front of an appeals court, which will take place tomorrow, Jan. 14. Talk about timing!). And she casts certain folks, like some of the jurors, in a harsh light for not following the law (they admitted to holding Adnan’s silence at his trial against him, even though that’s a constitutional no-no), and she wonders why the police didn’t follow up on leads, why his attorney didn’t hit home inconsistencies in the cell phone records, etc. And then Koenig turns around and does the same things they do.
She wonders, “If he is a sociopath, he’s a manipulator, and he’s manipulating me. Do I trust him?” She concludes the podcast — and this is what angered many devotees — by saying she would have voted to acquit were she a juror, even though she has doubts about whether he did it. And that’s one of the worst things she says, because implicit in her judgment is that some doubt matters. We convict people beyond all reasonable doubt, and personally, I have those. Everyone should. Adnan — who, of course, we never see, because it’s radio — maintains his innocence without inventing explanations. That makes sense to me: If he wasn’t there, what could he know about that happened? But ultimately, it’s just one more story of someone mishandled by the justice system (even if he really did do it).
To me, Serial was never a waste of time. As a lawyer myself, I was fascinated by the legal wrangling, especially the trial record, where Adnan’s attorney was, to me, a shrill, ineffective shrike. There was so much to learn about racism and inner city life. And it exposed a lot about the well-meaning elitists (like Koenig, or even myself) who judge others by their standards rather than those that make sense to their community.
I can’t wait to find out what happens at Adnan’s hearing. I hope he eventually gets real justice. And that would make a really good podcast.
Did you listen to Serial? What did you think?