If you’ve looked at my Twitter feed recently, or spoken to me in any context whatsoever, chances are that I’ve spoken excitedly about Serial. Yes, I realise that everybody else was doing that last November, but I was busy… erm… I was probably watching Emmerdale or something. But now I have sped through all 12 episodes, and I’m ready to rush down the road after that bandwagon.
On the slim chance that you haven’t heard of Serial, and the slightly less slim chance that you’ve not listened to it, I am going to continue. It’s a podcast (Thoroughly Modern, no?) which is a spin-off of This American Life, and over the course of 12 episodes the presenter, Sarah Koenig, documents her experiences investigating a murder case that happened 15 years ago.
Here is the description of the case that Serial’s website offers:
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 turned up 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 convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his 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.
Koenig is neither one nor the other; she is not presenting the podcast with the aim of exonerating Syed, but rather of discovering the truth (an angle that, she notes, is not necessarily shared by lawyers for prosecution or defence). I went into the series knowing that there would not be any clear-cut conclusion to it, which certainly helped me enjoy (if enjoy is the word) Serial without a sense of disappointment at the end.
Koenig has access to an extraordinary amount of material. Many people don’t agree to speak with her – Jay being the most notable absence, although interviews with him have subsequently been done by other reporters – but she has many ‘phone calls with Syed, lots of recordings from the trial, excerpts from diaries and letters, and interviews with many, many people, including (to my surprise) jurors. I don’t know what the laws are in the US (or, indeed, the UK), but I was surprised that she was allowed to play court proceedings or speak to jurors. Syed’s lawyer died a couple of years after the case was lost, and is a fascinating character herself, as one episode explores (as well, I’m sorry to say, as having the most irritating voice I’ve ever encountered).
What makes it so brilliant is a mixture of the writing, editing, and presenting. I suppose the many question marks about the case also contribute, but Koenig’s humanity holds the whole thing together. She is as curious, impatient, confused, and witty. She is more or less exactly the same as her listeners. Her empathy shines through, but at the same time she is keeping her interviewees at a distance, because she doesn’t know whom to trust. Because at least one person is lying.
I was cautious about using the word ‘enjoy’, because you have to remember that this is a real murder, and a real young woman who lost her life. It is also (possibly) a real young man with life in prison for something he didn’t do. But what makes Serial so good, and also quaintly anachronistic, is how non-sensational it is. Think of it as a sort of chattier Panorama, perhaps; it’s investigative journalism, not reality radio. But that’s not to say you won’t get hooked. Click the link above, give the first episode a try (or you can hunt it down on iTunes etc.), and you won’t look back.