The moment when Serial hooked me, and hooked me good, was actually kind of anticlimactic.
Serial is a new podcast from the makers of This American Life, and Sarah Koenig, its executive producer and host, spends much of the first episode going over the basics of the case on which the show’s going to spend its first season — that of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Baltimore County, Maryland, who was murdered on Jan. 13, 1999. Her ex-boyfriend and classmate Adnan Syed was arrested six weeks later and eventually found guilty. He continues to protest his innocence, and has spent most of the past 15 years in maximum security prison. Lee’s death, Syed’s conviction, and the wealth of other captivating details surrounding the pair and their community are being explored week-to-week over the course of Serial’s so far terrific first season.
After running through the timeline of the day Lee was killed, like any good reporter-cum-investigator, Koenig grabs hold of the obvious dangling thread that seems like it could unravel the case — a witness that Syed claims can confirm where he was at the time of Lee’s murder, a classmate named Asia McLean who spoke to him that day after school at the public library, who wrote to Syed saying so, and whom Syed’s lawyer never contacted.
“When I first heard about the long-lost Asia letters and the lawyer’s mistake, I thought, Well, their fight is over, right?” says Koenig, later in the episode. “They’ve got an alibi witness who was never heard from. It’s such a slam dunk. They’re done.” McLean has since moved away and distanced herself from her own testimony, refusing to speak to a private investigator who tracked her down. But Koenig finds McLean and gets her on the phone, and McLean confirms her story, in sharply remembered detail. And then…
Well, then nothing changes. A judge has already ruled that McLean’s 1999 letters had been left out of the original case by Syed’s lawyer for strategic reasons, not by accident. Her coming forward before then might have helped, or might not have. And anyway, McLean’s statement is just another one of the many, sometimes contradictory angles and accounts on the case.
It’s a realization that’s discomfiting — Syed, on the phone, describes what he’s doing as puncturing Koenig’s balloon — but also kind of thrilling. It’s a reminder of just how much this addictive story isn’t a TV procedural, where a piece of key information can have everyone throwing up their hands and agreeing the accused can be set free. It’s real life, and it’s so much messier.
Serial, which ran its sixth episode this week, has made as big a splash as is possible for a new podcast (from experienced pros). It was created by Koenig — a This American Life vet — with Ira Glass as the editorial adviser, and approaches its topic with the same friendly earnestness as the public radio giant, feeling, at least at first, like a lazy Sunday morning coffee-and-newspaper kind of listen. But there’s a high-wire tension to it that TAL doesn’t try for, even at its most in-depth and reported, and that’s thanks to Serial’s very nature.
Serial is ongoing, and episodes are still being completed, and if there’s some sense of where it might be headed, there’s a riveting lack of certainty. It’s a show that has the capacity to break out past the devoted but limited typical podcast audience. It’s a better, if more terrifyingly precarious, mystery than anything on television at the moment, and it’s all real, a juicier-than-fiction true crime saga on par with Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s mini-series The Staircase.
It was easy to assume, listening to that initial episode, that Serial’s aims were to exonerate Syed. That’s why Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s, brought the case to Koenig in the first place, and as Koenig pointed out, “as for physical evidence, there was none — nothing.” Syed was convicted mainly on the testimony of one of his casual friends, a guy named Jay who said he helped Syed dispose of Lee’s body. It’s a setup that seems like it could lead to all sorts of discoveries of injustice.
But as Koenig delves into the nearly decade-and-a-half-old story, the truth becomes more fascinating and less and less simple, until you feel like you should set up a wall of photos and evidence, like an obsessive detective in a movie. Episode 2 looks at Lee’s relationship with Syed, a romance between the very American, K-Ci & JoJo-listening, pager-sporting ’90s teenage children of first-generation immigrants that — depending on who you believe — either ended amicably or bitterly. Then the show goes on to discover some serendipitous weirdness regarding the person who found Lee’s body in Leakin Park, to examine the enigmatic Jay, who describes himself as the perceived “criminal element” alongside these overachieving high school kids, and to trace the route that Syed and Jay took on the day of the murder.
In the latest episode, by my estimation the strongest and most uneasy installment yet, Koenig lays out the many uncertainties and doubts about innocence maintained by Syed, who has been a determinedly affable presence on the phone from prison through the show, a 33-year-old who calls Koenig “man” and peppers his speech with “you know what I’m saying?” Serial touches on all the things that he can’t explain, like a key phone call from his cell, or his behavior when Lee was first reported missing. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he’s a sociopath. Maybe he isn’t, and a kid he used to smoke pot with but only described as a casual acquaintance has made him a very unfortunate scapegoat. Maybe the culprit was someone else entirely. Maybe it’s something more complicated.
Syed has a tough question for Koenig as well, as she clearly hasn’t come into his life to be an unquestioning champion. He asks her why she’s so interested in his case — a question that could be posed to all the listeners who are eagerly piping his story into their own lives via their headphones each week. Koenig explains that it’s because of the details of the case, which do encompass some rich themes of class and race and family, but mostly it’s because of him, because he’s so intriguing, a “nice guy” who’s gone to jail for doing such a terrible thing. And after a long pause, he replies, “You don’t even really know me, though, Koenig.”
This last section is haunting, and it’s so worth listening to all five installments that appear before it to get the impact, as Syed confronts Koenig about her assessment of him, and talks about how distraught he’d been about the way everyone had accepted his guilt. “People are supposed to know you,” he says. “What was it about me that a person could think that?”
That exchange stuck with me, and I got on the phone with Koenig to ask her about it.
“To me, it’s the theme of the entire story, honestly,” Koenig told BuzzFeed News. “That’s been the challenge of the story all along, is How can you tell? We all think we’re a pretty good judge of character. We all have these tools, and you move through life that way — that’s how we operate. You’re constantly, throughout your day, making judgments and decisions about how you’re going to think of other people. To me, that’s the huge conundrum of the whole thing. If these people did these things, then what does it mean about our ability to judge people? How can you tell what’s someone’s capable of?”
Koenig was quick to point out this is a question she has no answer to — nor does she have a clear answer about how this first season will end, a fact that seems more daring as the podcast continues and its rabid audience grows. “That’s a question we struggle with every day,” she said, laughing. “If we find an answer to our basic questions, then obviously that would be an ending. And if we don’t… then we have to figure out where we go. And I think it’ll just feel like, I’ve told you everything I want to tell you, there’s no reason to look in my notebook anymore, and now I’m done.” Listeners have to contend with the fact that at the end of a dozen, give or take, episodes, there may not be a neat ending waiting for them.
“You’re going to hear the prison door clank open, and he’ll clip-clop out, ‘Mama! Daddy!’” Koenig joked, before adding, “I can guarantee you that’s not going to happen. He’s not walking out of anywhere in six weeks, no matter what we find. I make no judgments, sitting here today, about his innocence or guilt. But even in cases where people on the outside agree it looks like a wrongful conviction — we’ve got DNA that points to another person or somebody else has confessed — even in those cases, some of those guys stay in prison. They still don’t get out.”
“I know there seem to be people who want a clean up or down vote,” Koenig continued, “and I don’t know what to say to that.”
I might say that in a world with a million fictional crime stories that wrap everything up in a bow, it’s truly radical, if potentially maddening, that even the producers of Serial have no idea what kind of resolution, if any, there is in store. It’s hard to let go of that expectation, but the payoff is a narrative that’s being excavated and put together as it goes in a way that feels genuinely unpredictable, and that’s enough to have me tuning in every Thursday, anxious to find out what’s next.
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