What did Thursdays look like before Serial? That’s a serious question for me and the 1.26 million other downloaders of a weekly podcast. Serial is the product of one reporter’s fascination with a fifteen-year-old Baltimore murder case.
Sarah Koenig, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and presently with This American Life, teamed up with her colleagues at TAL to reexamine the 1999 murder of a high-school student, Hae Min Lee. Since the trial, Adnan Syed has sat in maximum-security prison despite his claims of innocence and a relatively shaky case against him. When Koenig came into contact with Rabia Chaudry, a friend of the Syed family, the seeds of what would become Serial were planted. Koenig dug deeper. With each piece of conflicting testimony, each hole in the cell phone records, each prison phone call with pleasant, seemingly innocent Syed, the case showed its cracks and the idea germinated. Out of those cracks grew Serial.
Wildly suspenseful, the show is enjoying success previously unknown in the not-quite-mainstream podcast scene. There are podcasts devoted to analyzing Serial. There are Reddits and Subreddits and Subsubreddits tracing one week’s developments and speculating about next. Each week Koenig walks listeners through another aspect of the case: the timeline, the prosecution’s case, the lead witness upon whom the prosecution’s case is based, etc. Koenig’s reporting is meticulous, honest, self-aware, quite This American Lifeish.
Part of the show’s success can be attributed to its format. In an essay for The Awl, Jay Caspian Kang calls the podcast “an experiment in two old forms: the weekly radio crime show, and the confessional true-crime narrative.” The weekly episodes are building blocks and springboards into exciting, unexplored, and ultimately barren rabbit holes.
Koenig has said that she’s creating the show in “real time.” “I do not know how this is all going to turn out,” she told Rachel Syme in an interview for Vulture. “I’m still reporting. I’m doing it as I go. It’s not that I don’t have material for future shows, but things are changing everyday, like we just got in this huge new chunk of information, and I don’t know where it is going to take me.” She has twelve episodes in mind, “but even that could change, give or take, depending on what kind of new facts come in.”
And so we are left holding Koenig’s hand as she walks us through the wilderness. Maybe next week we’ll make the turn. We’ll find the right rabbit hole, the signpost pointing us toward Truth. Each week offers the hope of more answers, a smoking gun, but that looks more and more like a sky palace. And there we sit, watching a cumulonimbus castle drift slowly from sight, and we wonder. Are we missing the forest for the trees? What if we’re hopelessly grounded and can never get up there, where Truth is? Can we ever get out of the woods?
Soon you’re left with a tangled mess of doubts and mixed metaphors and Taylor Swift titles. After episode seven I texted a friend, “Was that terrible or really good?” It’s the way I feel after most episodes. I don’t think I’m alone. I feel that way because I want something that’s not yet there and I’m not sure it ever will be. Call it Truth. Be cynical, a realist, whatever, and call it satisfaction with the narrative. Either way, we don’t yet have it.
This is also a product of the show’s format. At one point in the interview, Syme goes into Koenig’s head and refers to Serial as “a new kind of show in installments that addressed the shaky nature of truth and storytelling as time passes.” This works for twenty-minute This American Life segments, I’m less certain it will for Serial, drawn out and extended as it is. There are characters we feel we know. There’s Adnan Syed, who’s spent years in jail. There’s Hae Min Lee, deceased, and her family, from whom we’ve not yet heard.
Koenig wants us to trust her. “I’ve been a radio reporter for ten years, and if I learned anything from my time at This American Life, it’s how to craft a narrative so that even if the ending is ambiguous, it is somehow satisfying.” Koenig is right to suggest that the Truth is maybe, probably, unattainable. Now one-and-a-half decades later, there is maybe only one living person who knows exactly what happened. What’s left is to piece together a story. It works for our justice system. It has to work for us.
We have to trust Koenig. As Kang points out, Serial isn’t just a story about a murder. It’s about Koenig’s experience and obsession with the murder. We listen as she documents her wavering instincts. We even waver with her because she’s holding our hands; she’s the castle chaser. She’s central to the show’s arc, the protagonist. Week by week, she’s reporting the truth and crafting the story. And while she might be right to suggest that that Truth and Story are out of our reach, that shouldn’t stop her from reaching.