301 – Serial

serial

Podcasting is a medium that still hasn’t taken off to the extent that it ought to. It is a (mostly) free form of entertainment generated by many, many talented people (speaking of talented people – give Two Guys, a Girl and a PizzaCast a listen). The latest “it” show is one that everyone ought to listen to. It’s called “Serial,” and it just may solve a 15-year-old murder mystery.

My own tastes have changed a lot since I hopped on the podcast train a little under 10 years ago. In my journey from comic book shows to comedy shows to film analysis shows I did take a couple detours into the world of storytelling podcasts. The format has been great for a show like This American Life, which was never unpopular on NPR, but has found a new audience online. I listened for years before getting burnt out on storytelling in general (at least in the audio-only sense). That is starting to change in a big way.

Serial is a spinoff of This American Life, premiering as a backdoor pilot of sorts on episode 537 of the older program. That episode, titled “The Alibi” introduced us to Sarah Koenig, a producer whose attention is drawn to the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee and its aftermath, which landed Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, in prison. Adnan still proudly proclaims his innocence, and Koenig seeks to address this matter in the first season of this experimental show.

There are five episodes so far, released on Thursdays, and each one seeks to investigate a particular aspect of the case. For instance, the first episode looks at a possible alibi for Adnan at the time the murder was committed, while the most recent episode examines the logistics behind Adnan’s timeline that day according to the police. Koenig and her fellow producers are figuring the show out as they go, carrying the story over from episode to episode, letting it lead them down the rabbit hole.

It is an interesting idea that is pretty novel as far as podcasts are concerned. It is easy to find yourself rooting for Adnan, and hoping Koenig finds something that will exonerate him, but Koenig herself often stresses the fact that no one really knows what happened that day. She wants to believe Adnan is innocent just as much as everyone else does, but she tries to maintain her journalistic objectivity as well.

The first episode lays out a lot of fishy details about the case against Mr. Syed, and it is endlessly fascinating to listen in as Koenig addresses each piece. But it is important to remember that these are real people. This American Life proprietor (and horned-rim glasses aficionado) Ira Glass has compared Serial to an HBO/Netflix drama, but Hae Min Lee was a real girl who really met a grisly end, and it’s easy to lose sight of that. In that way, Serial feels a little exploitative. That sense is offset by Adnan’s involvement via prison telephone, but that doesn’t always keep discussion of his situation from sounding like a Wikipedia summary of a fictional character. This is compounded further by the existence of a subreddit dedicated to the show, and my own ridiculous instinct to avoid “spoilers” for something that is happening in real life.

That hesitancy to indulge in the narrative aspect of a real situation is overwhelmed by peaked curiosity. It is unclear where Serial is headed – Koenig claims she doesn’t know either – functions well as an accounting of human nature and the justice system regardless of whatever conclusion it all comes to in the end. Just listen to the first episode and try not to get hooked. I dare you.

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