In the past week, I have been dragged into the world of podcasts as of late. Listening to tens of hours of content while running, doing household chores, and my work. Within the past 10 days, I have become addicted to podcasts, this is due, almost entirely, to the WBEZ Chicago, This American Life spin-off Serial.
“Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of a season. Each season, we follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. We won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”
The first season of Serial covers the murder of Hae Min Lee. The incomplete nature of evidence has attracted people to take sides, demands for retrials, and the interest of reporter Sarah Koenig.
“On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body was found in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.”
The first season is broken up into twelve episodes, with an average length of any given episode being about 42 minutes (the longest is 55 minutes, shortest being 27 minutes), this gives Serial almost 8 1/2 hours of time to delve into the details. Each episode has a rough focus, on the body location, on Jay’s account, on the investigative process. This is where one of Serial‘s strengths is apparent, its focus on detail.
Unlike TV murders, Adnan’s case is very messy, full of contradicting accounts and evidence, details that may or may not be useful, and general chaos. Serial is not afraid to closely examine everything, presenting any and all evidence to its audience, both for and against Adnan. Serial‘s greatest asset is the power it gives its audience.
Unlike TV murders, the answer is not obvious, unlike TV murders, the liars are not clear, unlike TV murders, Serial is interesting. Serial lets you see the evidence up close, Serial lets you choose how important each piece is, Serial lets you decide what to make of the case. Sarah Koenig does not present herself as the one who knows everything, the one who will guide you through this case towards the conclusive answer. By the finale, Sarah is just as confused, unsure, and conflicted as you are.
The quality of the podcast is just as great. While quite a few clips are a little hard to hear (most were recorded in 1999 after all), Sarah’s voice is crisp and clear. The music was never too obtrusive, and it helped add to the atmosphere. The theme, in particular, was exceptional, setting the perfect mood while also playing clips from earlier to refresh the memory. The true stamp of quality, however, is that every time the theme played the only thought that went through my head would be, ‘I cannot wait for what’s about to come.’
Serial is a chance to really sink your teeth into a criminal case, turning every stone, chewing on each new development. The only flaw to be found in Serial is that, unlike TV murders, the conclusion is not satisfactory. Despite the hours of interviews and research Sarah Koenig does not have a conclusive answer, and despite the hours of listening, neither does her viewers.