Here's a true story: In January of 1999, a 17-year-old girl named Hae Min Lee was strangled to death and buried in a shallow grave in a park in Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the murder and has been in prison ever since. Some say he might be innocent; many believe his trial was mishandled, but there can be little doubt that this is a sad story in which two young lives that should have been full and happy were ended, albeit in different ways. It's grim and it's depressing and I wish none of it had happened. Not exactly great water cooler fodder.
Yet, Serial, the nonfiction podcast sensation that's sweeping the nation, has made this the cultural talking point of the moment for a lot of people. There are countless tweets using the hashtag #TeamAdnan, as casually as if it were in reference to Ross and Rachel's alleged break on Friends. There is rabid discussion and speculation (full disclosure: I've been doing it, too) about Adnan's likable personality and genuine nature, or his suspicious friend-turned-tattler Jay, or about where Adnan's cellphone was at a certain time. Articles and interviews with the host, Sarah Koenig, beg her to let slip a little something about her craziest discovery so far (and she's played the game, hinting at a big revelation to come). All this with little to no discussion of Hae herself.
Of course, dramatization of actual, grisly crimes is nothing new, but it's usually reserved for Law & Order: SVU and local news channels (something which the movie Nightcrawler brilliantly, stunningly meditates on, please go see it right away). Deftly segmented into weekly episodes that leave you inevitably salivating at the end, the story Koenig has wrought starts to feel even more like fiction. Maybe the show's soft, Ira-Glass-approved tone serves to distance us from the horrors of it all, leaving us guilt-free in our rabid discussions of events in between Thursdays. Or, maybe, it's not Koenig's fault.
There are plenty of examples of true crime done well, including some by Koenig herself. Serial is a spinoff of This American Life, where Koenig was also a producer and sometimes host, and several episodes of that show are worth listening to if you're interested in the show. In episode 507, "Confessions," two murder cases in which innocent people were suspected are run under the microscope. There's an acute sense of prospects loss. We even hear a tense phone call between a young woman whose false confession left a stain on her record that caused her to lose custody of her children (which she still has not regained, 20 years later), and the detective who essentially coerced that confession out of her. Her life has been fundamentally worse for what happened in a botched, 17-hour-long interrogation. This episode never lets you forget that fact. That seems like the kind of respectful gravitas that, according to some listeners, is missing from Serial.
I think the question at hand — whether or not Serial is problematic or even unfeeling in its treatment of events — is about more than just tone, though. It's about purpose and intention. This show is, I think, more about cultural reception of news, and the journalistic processes that inevitably act as the middleman between the audience and the "actors" of a real-life tragedy. It's clear that Koenig is aware of the role her own perception of Adnan plays in how she frames the facts, and while she does her best to be fair, she also acknowledges how hard that can be.
Maybe we need to flip our view of Serial and its host upside-down. The discomfort some viewers feel with the way Koenig is investigating and supposedly dramatizing the story comes from an expectation of serious reporting and investigative journalism with the power to actually expose truth and change the course of events. I would like to think that Serial is as much about wrangling the complicated burden of journalistic ethics and the experience of being a human with a job to do as it is about Hae's murder and Adnan's innocence (though, that's not without its own issues, as Jay Caspian Kang points out on The Awl). But, it's hard to believe that Koenig doesn't see the show as a crusade of some kind. On last week's episode, Koenig says outright it's not her job to free Adnan, in contrast to guest commentator Deirdre Enright of The Innocence Project. If proving Adnan innocent isn't a motive in some respect, she's done a very good job of hiding it so far.
Still, though, the experience of uncovering and obsessing over this story is equally interesting and important. If pulling back a curtain on investigative journalism and storytelling is in some way the "point" of the show, then cultural reception becomes the pivotal place where Serial succeeds or fails (ethically speaking, not in terms of popularity — it's already an undeniable hit). If we choose to categorize Serial as an objective, truth-seeking investigation alone, it is hugely problematic, because there's a clear bias in favor of Adnan. That bias is acknowledged, but it nevertheless drives Koenig and her disciples to zoom in on tiny facts that support Adnan's innocence.
When I'm getting carried away in a debate about whether or not he did it, taking Buzzfeed quizzes and #TeamAdnan tweeting away, I imagine Hae Min Lee's family listening to this, watching this unfold, reading those tweets and then I feel like this is a lurid exercise in voyeurism. Then I think about the 95% of said Buzzfeed quiz-takers who agreed that Adnan's trial was mishandled and I wonder: Imperfect and morally challenging as it might be, maybe this show will push a generation of people to think more deeply about our legal system and the increasingly powerful role that public opinion plays in that. And, maybe, the next time a Laci Peterson case hits national news, the water cooler talk will be just a little bit more self-aware.