How does one even begin to explain Serial? You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to explain a magnificent sprawling epic of a book to a friend? Or perhaps a film riddled with plot twists and double-sided characters? So that when you start attempting to explain the concept it all just sounds like a jumbled mess, but you cannot stress enough that it just has to be experienced? That’s kind of like Serial, the latest podcast phenomenon from the creators of This American Life.
I’ll have a bash at explaining it anyway. Serial follows host Sarah Koenig’s excavation of a 15 year old cold case in Baltimore County. The case is that of a murder of a 17 year old student, Hae Min Lee, and the convicted Adnan Syed. Adnan has been in prison since the early 2000s. A large part of the reasoning for this was a witness account provided by Adnan’s supposed accessory to the crime, Jay. Adnan himself, and many many people who knew him continue to this day to proclaim his innocence.
The 12 episode series follows the developments of the story as Sarah Koenig works through it, piece-by-piece. No stone is left unturned, as the case shifts between objective and empirical evidence about the plausibility of the murder itself, to the subjective and opinion-led scrutiny of the key constituents in the story. All of this comes with the overwhelming caveat that the case is being re-examined 15 years later, and many of the witnesses and people who lived within the community have gone from being young high school students to adults in that time.
That’s all I’ll say about the narrative of this case, as the more depth I go into, the more twists will be spoiled. There are a few things that make Serial an outstanding achievement though; a few running themes which elevate it from a real life ‘who-dunnit’ to a masterful dissection of American living.
Firstly, in terms of personalities, there are few absolutes. Nearly every witness comes across as somewhat confused about the crime. Everyone has done good and bad things. It is difficult to trust anyone. People who you feel you can put full faith in commonly do a 180 just minutes later. This is most apparent with Adnan, the supposed perpetrator, and his chief prosecuting witness, Jay. Throughout Serial’s journey you will find yourself consistently questioning both of them. We know that one of them is lying right from the get go, but Serial will sway your conviction on who is doing so multiple times throughout.
In part, this comes down to its second profound theme: memory. As mentioned, 15 years have passed since the murder. For every character, certain events stick in their mind, others have vanished. And for those that have stuck, how have they altered? How has context swayed and affected their judgement? Serial demonstrates the fragility of memory, even among events that one would think they’d never forget.
Finally, the legal system of the United States. Serial is a damning portrayal of this system, and its role in general society. This isn’t a conspiracy theory-esque exposé of corruption, but an examination of how the legal system actually works (or at times, doesn’t); it’s a flawed behemoth that can target and destroy people because... well, because. This is not a spoiler, and it is not claiming that the legal system failed as such, just that there are proceedings in this case and any case that, once understood, should shock and outrage most people. Serial brings these to light in the context of this narrative, and makes you question exactly what we mean by the term ‘justice’.
Besides these themes, Serial has achieved greatness in another sense. Rarely have I seen any series, much less a podcast series, lead to the development of such a massive, intelligent and enthused community. Google Trends shows an explosion of interest in the topic since its inception a little over 12 weeks ago. News articles are rife, and full of examination and analysis of the story. The subreddit for Serial has grown rapidly in a matter of weeks, and is home to perhaps the most interesting speculation and uncovering of the case outside of the show itself. This has reinvigorated podcasts as a medium, and indeed has inspired entire legions of people who don’t even touch podcasts to begin listening to them more frequently. For that alone, it deserves some applause.
Before closing, it’s important to reiterate that this is a real case. Hae Min Lee really died back in 1999. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this, and treat it as though it is merely a story. Indeed, by reviewing the podcast you could say that I’m doing exactly that. But I’d like to pay my respects to Hae Min Lee here. I mentioned the series' lack of absolutes – one person who is absolute is Hae herself, the innocent victim of this crime, and in these community discussions she is often sidelined for discussions on who did it and the plausibility of witness narratives. Currently, people are trying to raise money for a scholarship fund in Hae Min Lee’s name. It's a worthy cause and deserves our support.
In essence, Serial is a groundbreaking achievement. It’s with no hyperbole that I say that it’s one of the finest podcasts to have ever been made, from its structure, to the analysis of the case itself, to the community of would-be detectives it has inspired. Quite simply, you must listen to it, and form your own judgements on topics ranging from the case itself to the macrocosmic issue of America’s legal system - perhaps the real criminal at the heart of this crime.
You can listen to Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/