Serial Thoughts

Over the past month or so, I've caught up with and finished off the first "season" of Serial, a NPR podcast that spun off from This American Life. It was a 12 week series of podcasts of varying length that attempted to exhaustively cover one murder case from 1999. The devil is in the details, and if you're fond of that saying, you'll probably enjoy Serial (I am and I did!) You'll be safe for the next few paragraphs, but there will be a spoiler warning later in the post.

The case covers how a popular high school senior, Hae Min Lee, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and classmate Adnan Syed. He claims innocence, but the prosecution had a witness named Jay who says that he did it. It's an interesting case, especially once you start digging into the details, but that's not why the podcast is great. The creator, Sarah Koenig, takes a very active role in the podcast, such that it's not really about the murder so much as her perspective on the murder and how she reacts to the various pieces of evidence or, more frequently, how difficult it is to actually piece together coherent evidence.

Therein lies the strength of Serial, the stubborn insistence that it's extremely difficult to piece together the details of what happened 6 weeks ago (and even moreso 15 years ago). It's one of the first points the podcast makes, asking several people (unrelated to the case in question) what they were doing 6 weeks ago (no one could confidently remember in detail), and it's something that comes up repeatedly throughout the series.

Watching TV shows like CSI or Bones makes it seem easy to figure out in minute detail exactly what happened in the past, but that's clearly not the case in real life. One of the most amusing examples in the podcast is the alleged payphone outside of a Best Buy store: no one can confirm that it ever existed. Best Buy doesn't remember, the phone company doesn't know, blueprints show a space for a payphone inside the building (but no one remembers that either), and so on. The case against Adnan definitely depends on that phone being there, but no one can corroborate it (though it does seem unlikely that no one would have noticed that the phone didn't exist during the investigation and later trial, it's still a good example of how difficult it is to piece things together). It's probably worth remembering this sort of stuff the next time some sort of controversial crime is committed or even the next time you get angered by something as trivial as a tweet or something like that.

The other interesting thing about Koenig's perspective is that it seems pretty clear that she entered into this case because she thought there was a fair chance that Adnan was innocent. This is not at all unusual, but it is an interesting look at how media bias shapes the way stories are pursued (it would be a great story if Adnan was innocent, perhaps not so much if he wasn't and the courts got it right). To her credit, Koenig doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence that looks bad for Adnan, and indeed, spends a lot of time on those aspects of the story. This again gets back to the difficulty in piecing together events from the past. Koenig doesn't downplay any of the evidence, but there are so many holes in the story that it's hard to know what actually happened.

(Here be the Spoilers) And in the end, after over a year's worth of investigation, Koenig still doesn't know. In the final episode, she does personally come down on Adnan's side, but only in an "innocent until proven guilty" sorta way. She just doesn't know enough about what actually happened to Hae to say for sure that Adnan actually did murder her. She says that if she was on the jury, she would vote to acquit. Having listened to her perspective for 12 weeks worth of podcasts, I would probably agree, except what do I know but what Koenig presented to me? There's a reason that a trial has two opposing advocates. I mentioned earlier that Koenig "doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence", but how would I know that?

At the very start of the series, I was immediately reminded of Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which covers a case in which a police officer is killed in Dallas, Texas. Morris has stated that he started this project with a specific goal in mind (I won't go into too much detail here because it's a film you should watch and I don't want to ruin anything), and unlike Koenig, he actually got to that endpoint. The movie actually had a tangible impact on the system, eventually causing decisions to be overturned on appeal. Again, Morris embraced his subjectivity in making this movie. He was almost taunting the viewer through his use of non-linearity, editing, and even visual cues like lighting and framing.

Did Koenig do something similar in Serial? The podcasts are primarily comprised of her direct address to the listeners. She frequently plays audio recordings of calls with Adnan, police interviews, and even court proceedings, but they are usually very short clips. She also attacks the case from multiple angles, thus leading to a non-linearity that also reminded me of Morris' documentary. And while it's clear that she spent a long time pouring through documents, evidence, and audio, it's not entirely clear how much was left out in the interest of streamlining the story. This sounds overly cynical and paranoid, I'm sure, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? How do we know what happened? With the case, with the podcast, with anything!?

That might sound like a copout, but it's not. It's a simple recognition that sometimes the Truth is not always knowable. A project like Serial or The Thin Blue Line could lead to revelations, as it did with the latter, or with a big fat question mark, as it did with former. Sometimes you still need to make a decision, even when you don't have all the facts you would like. Ultimately, assuming Koenig to be trustworthy (and I have no reason to really doubt her, despite the above), I'd have to agree with her conclusion. There's no real answer, but I don't know that the evidence was clear enough to convict someone either.

I've often wondered about The Thin Blue Line - was Morris just lucky? How did he know to keep pushing the established story? How do you select a case for this sort of thing? How much time do you spend investigating before you decide whether to continue or not? When and why would you consider giving up on a case? Serial has been a resounding success, and it appears that there will be a "Season 2" of the podcast, so perhaps this will be one of the things Koenig addresses. It would be entirely fitting with the general tenor of the series so far. (In case it's not abundantly clear, if you are reading this and enjoyed Serial, I highly recommend checking out The Thin Blue Line, currently available on Netflix Instant!)