Culture Plus: Serial and Coming to Terms with Dissatisfaction

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

If you’ve spoken to me over the past few weeks, you have probably heard about Serial. The new podcast, a This American Life spin-off from producer Sarah Koenig, has me and a couple hundred thousand listeners hooked — it’s addictive and engrossing storytelling. I find myself bringing it up on dinner dates, discussing it at War News Radio meetings, and haltingly attempting to explain it in Russian class (“об убийстве в 1999ом году”). I can’t scroll through Twitter on Thursdays without hearing about Jay’s alibi, joking about MailKimp, or wondering if there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.

The elevator pitch for Serial would revolve around one question: Who killed Hae Min Lee in 1999? Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the murder, but it looks like the case against him was flimsy. Was the prosecution’s star witness reliable? Was there any real proof? Is Adnan capable of murder?

Adnan Syed’s yearbook picture. Image courtesy of slate.com

That’s the pitch, but I am now hesitant to describe Serial as a whodunnit. I have a few qualms with the show. The first is the exploitation factor: it’s one thing to obsessively follow and speculate about True Detective, but it’s another to fixate on the very real death of an 18 year old girl. There is in depth research behind each episode, but Koenig has stumbled when trying to dissect the complexities of the racially and culturally diverse Baltimore neighborhood she is focusing on.

But most significantly, as we get closer to the finale, my anxiety about not reaching a satisfying ending increases. Koenig has accomplished some incredible things — she has tracked down witnesses nobody has heard from in nearly two decades, brought the Innocence Project on board, poked holes in the state’s evidence — but it’s hard to have a lot of faith that she’ll be able to definitively solve the case. If this was an Agatha Christie novel, someone like Koenig might get a confession from the real killer in the third act. But I sincerely doubt that will happen here.

I have been thinking a lot about AMC’s The Killing while listening to Serial. The Killing, based on a Danish show, helpfully made its central theme its tagline: “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” Being a 17 year old in the midst of a Scandinavian crime kick when the show premiered, I tuned in, excited to uncover the murderer’s identity. I watched hours of detectives scowling and smoking, parents weeping and acting irrationally, and made the (then-smart) bet on Belko as the killer.

Then the first season ended with no answer. This is not the place to hash out my anger about The Killing (though I maintain that if you’re not sure if you have a second season, your first should have an ending), but I do want to talk about the promises storytellers make their audiences. The Killing implicitly made one, fairly simple promise: after 13 episodes, you would find out who killed Rosie Larsen. And it failed to keep that promise. It failed spectacularly.

Serial, in my opinion, makes no such promise. It’s easy to think it does: in an interview with Sarah Koenig, Mike Pesca at The Gist pleaded, “Don’t let this wind up being acontemplation on the nature of the truth,” and a thousand listeners nodded sympathetically. After 12 hours of intent listening (more if you get distracted for a moment and have to rewind) we expect an ending. But Koenig hasn’t promised us one.

Hae Min Lee’s yearbook picture. Image courtesy of reddit user Jakeprops

I’m guilty of having unrealistic expectations when it comes to the case. I’ve browsed through the independent research on the subreddit and kept up with attorney Rabia Chaudry’s blog. It’s hard not to care about the ultimate outcome, because it’s not just a well-crafted story: a young woman is dead, and a young man has spent half of his life in prison. Real life rarely has neat conclusions.

Indeed, some of the best moments of Serial are when Koenig lets the seams show: when we hear that she has trouble tracking people down, when we hear her trying to discuss the case as her companion’s mind wanders. Yes, devoting so much time to contemplating the inherent unknowability of truth can make you want to pull your hair out, but watching Koenig try to reach something more is fascinating in itself. Tune in, but don’t expect a thrilling, taped confession in episode 12.

Or don’t take my advice. My money’s on Jay.

Featured image courtesy of criticsatlarge.ca

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

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