The massively popular podcast turns real life traumas into potboiler mystery stories. I’m all in favour of that.
What is Serial? One the one hand the show deals with serious subjects – in the first series the murder of a young woman and in the one just started with the capture of an American soldier in Afghanistan. Yet both its creators and its audience treat it as a mystery, the unravelling of which is supposed to be entertaining.
Indeed, the show has became sufficiently baked into pop culture to be the subject of Christmas themed parody on SNL.
The events documented in the first season are real and you can discover them independently of anything to do with Serial. Yet if after listening to the first episode, I told you what ‘happens’ in the thirteenth, you’re probably going to lose interest in listening to the episodes in between.
So as weird as it seems when writing about the reporting of real life I am going to include a spoiler warning. From here on out I will write on the assumption that either know or do not mind finding out how the first season of Serial plays out.
Making errors along this boundary between entertainment and journalism risks leaving one acting in poor taste. It probably was out of line for Best Buy to try and use its prominence in the first season to let potential customers know “We have everything you need. Unless need a payphone.”
And the family of Hae Min Lee – the victim of the murder around which the first series revolved – seem to dislike the whole enterprise. During the first season, her brother wrote on Reddit:
TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck when she got the news that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup… you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.
It’s a fair point. Clearly those are not events that the Lee family would not want to relive. However, Serial is not unearthing them without purpose. It is public interest journalism rather than merely journalism that interests the public. Koenig and her team were ultimately unable to determine who Lee’s killer was. But they demonstrated at least to my satisfaction that Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend who was convicted of her murder – should not be in prison. Between finding a witness who appears to give him an alibi and providing an alternative explanation for the call records that were the centrepiece of the prosecution’s case, Koenig makes it hard to argue that Syed’s guilt is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. These developments have led the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to reopen post-conviction proceedings relating to Syed, a process that might eventually lead to his release.
And along the way Koenig raises broader social themes. The sections on Syed’s original trial does not paint a flattering picture of American justice. And it indicates that Islamophobia in America did not begin with 9/11. The new season seems to be in even deeper as the mystery is intimately tied to the War in Afghanistan. We’re only one episode in and we’ve already had an account of an outpost so dire that soldiers have to stir their own shit as it burns – a fitting metaphor for the hell of war.
I suspect much of the negative reaction to Serial is about its style rather than its substance. Koenig’s delivery and the soundtrack are discordantly jaunty. Information is consciously withheld to build up tension – hence why it’s a rare piece of non-fiction it’s possible to spoiler – and like a pot-boiler detective story, each episode ends on a cliff-hanger. But focusing too narrowly on these elements gives a false impression of the show’s tone. It is sensitive rather than sensationalist. Koenig uses the space afforded by devoting an entire series of podcast to a single case to see everyone’s point of view and allow anyone who will speak to her to have their say. The show is also notably short on the shouting and finger-pointing.
Serial does therefore have the virtue of honesty. It acknowledges that it is wringing entertainment value from real life traumas. But that doesn’t prevent it treating its subjects with respect and decency. Pretty much the opposite of what the news media usually does:
Prime examples would be the British tabloids whose coverage of child murders is as mawkish and incessant as it is debased. The journalists behind it will, for example, print innuendo about grieving parents, posthumously rename a victim or even hack their voicemail. If a balance between entertainment and information has to be struck – and human psychology being what it is then it usually must – I would rather it was done by someone with Koenig’s integrity.
The coverage of the Bowe Bergdahl case up to now has featured its share of awfulness too. A low point of which may have been one of CNN’s main anchors interviewing the executive producer of Homeland about the supposed similarities between the (fictional) Nicholas Brody and the (real) Bowe Bergdahl. So to say I’m confident that Serial will manage to raise the tone is rather faint praise.