Crime is currency in our media. The top rated new show this year is How to Get Away with Murder. Some of the most popular, high grossing movies worldwide are those based around superheroes solving global crises and crimes. You can’t change the channel on your television without passing some sort of CSI or NCIS spin-off or a True Crime analysis show. I can name, off the top of my head, six or seven crime dramas without even thinking about it.
The media profits off of all kinds of crime. The fictional kind, where there’s a new case every week for viewers to work out alongside their favorite, fictional detectives. The real kind on our news outlets, where stories are obsessed over and followed at a national, almost cult-like level. And then there’s the kind that Serial has chosen to focus on.
It’s a real case being talked about on this intense podcast, but one that happened and that was “solved” back in 1999. I’m sure you’ve heard about Serial by now, if you haven’t already been obsessively listening to it. Slate and The AV Club have both set up podcasts about this podcast. But for all the emphasis that it places on a murder investigation and trial (one that Sarah Koenig has spent the last year trying to prove was botched), Serial is really interesting because of how its narrative focuses on time and lies. How well do you count for your time, and what can you remember of it? And can you tell whether or not someone is lying? And are they even lying if they just can’t remember a simple fact, a space of time that they can’t account for, months after the date that you’re asking them to recall?
Serial is trying to ask these questions of its suspect and the man whose confession got him arrested, but also of us. It looks into the twisty ways that we spin stories. We all have different perspectives on things, but this case put a teenager in jail because of the way his story was told, and Serial is trying to figure out if this was the wrong decision.
Following the case of Hae Min Lee, Sarah Koenig (This American Life) proclaims that she has spent a year of her life investigating Lee’s murder and the truth that has been hidden behind it. Min Lee’s secret boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is still in jail for her murder, a fact that Koenig has been investigating at a friend of Adnan’s request. This friend, Rabia Chaudry, contacted Koenig after seeing the pieces that she wrote about Adnan’s lawyer being disbarred. In the case against Adnan, there is no physical evidence to tie him to any crime, just the confession of his friend, Jay. Jay told the police that Adnan killed Hae Min Lee, no questions about it, and that he helped with the disposal of her body. It was his confession on the stand that put Adnan in jail, and whether or not he’s lying is a fact that Serial is trying to find the truth of.
But if he’s not — and Koeing has and is considering this — maybe, just maybe, it’s Adnan that has been lying. To his friends, to his family, to the police, and now to an incredibly widespread public. As Koenig says, he’d have to be a sociopath to have done so, and that’s something that she isn’t ruling out. Serial hasn’t revealed the truth yet (and honestly, it’s hard to say whether or not there is any truth to be found, with critics doubting that Koenig will be able to uncover any), so the questions of how we count for our time, and whether or not we know when someone is lying are still open for debate.
Where Serial gets complicated though is that the podcast is, in effect, creating a narrative about how another narrative put a man in jail for half of his life. Recently, criticism on the show has surfaced surrounding both the journalistic ethics of the case (Koenig has spent five hours withholding information from us so as to create a more compelling story), and around her status as a white woman investigating the lives of three minority figures. (Does this mean that she cannot understand them? That she is exploiting Hae Min Lee’s life and death for a good story? And as BuzzFeed has now asked: is she using model minority stereotypes to flesh out her narrative, assigning innocence to the model Pakistani-American student Adnan, and deceit to the African-American Jay?)
In trying to expose a narrative, one that was used to convict a teenager for the death of his ex-girlfriend, Koenig has carefully created and shaped another one to do so. The podcast itself is questionable, sure, but all media have to take angles for their stories, and with Serial, Koenig has cultivated a story that has attracted the attention of millions of people.
Despite what you think about how it’s telling its story, and what exactly it’s trying to tell us, Serial is an undoubtedly fascinating media experiment.
You can listen to the Serial podcast here.