If you haven’t been listening to Serial, run don’t walk over to SerialPodcast and listen from Episode 1 on through to today’s final episode. A reporter named Sarah Koenig began Serial at the behest of a woman who wanted to try to help free a young man named Adnan Syed, one whom, she believed, had been falsely imprisoned for a murder in Baltimore back in 1999.
Serial is involving, enlightening, challenging storytelling, the kind you simply never see anymore. It is great because the writing is great. Koenig knows how to take her listeners through the many twists and turns she herself went through during the taping of her show, after her year-long involvement in the case and her ongoing phone conversations with Syed.
Whether she knew it or not she was onto a kind of story Hollywood, and even television, has all but abandoned in their fumble for box office or film awards or whatever. Only HBO’s True Detective comes even remotely close to what Serial was and is. Serial is true, that makes it different. It’s about a real person who is currently incarnated – a real murder of a promising, smart young Korean American named Hae Min Lee. Her family is grieving while the listeners are being entertained. The witnesses and anyone who was involved with the case exists now in the real world. The line between entertainment and reality has never been this close where that closeness matters. This isn’t a bunch of dumb fame-hungry teens planted in front of a camera for our consumption.
What a moving, tragic story this turned out to be, with the reporter herself front and center as she grappled with the facts of the case, her gut instinct and her growing friendship with Syed. The end of the show circled back to the beginning: no real answer, though it did make a pretty good argument that there had to have been, at the very least, reasonable doubt in the case. But did Sarah herself believe him innocent? No. Not completely. I feel confident that had a white kid with lots of money been up for the same crime no way would he have gone to prison at 17 years old for life. But that doesn’t mean he did not kill Hae Min Lee. From everything the podcast presented, accidentally revealing more on the guilty side (I think) it seems inconceivable that he was not involved, if not the perp.
You can discuss the ins and outs of the case on the Reddit sub devoted to it. It’s a terrific deep dive into case solving with many smart people on there.
What it got me thinking about, though, is how media is changing. All a person needs is a microphone to make a podcast, upload it for free and reach millions, in this case. Podcasts have become more popular for the same reason audiobooks have. We’re not really married to the idea of having to watch something to really be entertained. Most of the time we’re looking at something else anyway, our computers, our phones. We’re slowly being conditioned to multi-task. No better way to do that than to limit the output to a podcast or audio feed to allow for other things to be happening at the same time.
But also, Koenig and her team are telling a story steeped in modern American culture. Why is it in 2014 we’re still digging up the past to find our most “Oscar worthy” tales? Why is there so little explored in the lives of ordinary Americans? That is partly why Serial works so well – it tells a story of ordinary Americans in extraordinary circumstances and in so doing it just happens to teach listeners about so many things they might not know anything about – like the court system, like cell phone technology in 1999, like how different our culture was back then. Shakespeare in Love was about to win Best Picture, Columbine would happen a couple of months later and in two years 9/11 would completely alter how we do and see everything.
Syed is a Pakistani Muslim, a smart kid from immigrant parents who belongs to a tight knit Muslim community. Sure, the show has drawn controversy from some who believe it is inherently racist for a white reporter like Koenig to even try to tell a story of a Muslim fairly. The victim was also a smart magnet school kid from immigrant parents from Korea. Both households were strict with their children, as you’d have to be on the streets of Baltimore. The third person in the story, Jay, an American original who defied categorization (as everyone said) is the one who “came clean,” the only one so far to confess to having witnessed the murder. Yet, he’s the one the defense tried to destroy and he’s the one the Redditors who believe Adnan is falsely imprisoned continue to demonize is a way that makes it seem dangerously close to racial profiling.
So Koenig comes under fire for telling this important but ordinary story of young Americans who aren’t of her ethnicity. When I look at it I think, wow, what a great story period. And how great to think it important enough to share with a wide audience. What I don’t get is why more stories like this aren’t told on television or in film.
It has become all too obvious in 2014 how emptied out American storytelling has become. It has been quite the feat coming up with the best of 2014 if you stay inside the confines of American cinema. Most top ten lists now contain films from other countries. And indeed, those movies are so vividly original, telling seemingly ordinary stories about ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, like Poland’s Ida or Russia’s Leviathan.
As the variety shrinks, media like how Serial was presented is likely to flourish. While independent film will be a live and well for a while, I hope that they will always value the importance of story first. I find in a lot of the films that are being shoved into the Oscar race whether they’re good or not the thing that is mostly missing from them is a good story. Koenig and her team just proved how you can tell a good story without needing millions of dollars to tell it. Just look at who we are, not who we want to be.
Now that it’s over, we’ll have to bide our time until the next podcast. But if I were twenty years younger and still had an itch to tell original stories to audiences I’d get myself a microphone and start writing an episode by episode podcast. There are so few of them that do what Serial has just done. I suspect it’s a niche industry that’s about to explode.
But until then, bravo to you, Sarah Koenig and your team of producers to hold so many of us at your complete attention week by week – Masterful storytelling from a great writer.