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The podcast and the murder: why I soured on Serial

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When the story tipped over into irrelevant rumors, I lost my patience with its exploration of 'truth'

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Spoiler alert: This piece discusses many details of the series and its finale.

The world’s first blockbuster podcast, Serialreleased its final episode yesterday. You can be forgiven for missing it, because not a lot of people were talking about it. That’s because its long-speculated dramatic conclusion ended up lacking in both drama and conclusion. Its thoroughly unsatisfying denouement highlighted everything I have come to dislike about this show, which I feel is a failure as both a journalistic enterprise and true crime narrative.

Serial follows a time honored narrative tradition

A lot of ink has been spilled discussing why Serial caught on with such a huge audience. Partly it was piggybacking on the success of This American Life. It also comes at a time when podcasts are seeing a renaissance as an artform. But the simplest answer is that crime stories, and especially serialized crime stories, are a perennial draw. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle built literary empires with this approach. And of course, there’s Law and Order, one of the longest running and most successful TV franchises of all time.

The key on Law and Order is to depict real cases, but to do so with a veneer of fiction, so that you’re not subjecting the actual criminals and victims, alleged or otherwise, to the moralizing necessities of a plot. Its stories are "ripped from the headlines" but tied up with a neat little bow. In the real world, the evidence doesn’t always add up, the cops don’t catch the right guy, and prosecutors don’t bother to get indictments when the evidence seems overwhelmingly compelling. On Law and Order you can fix all that.

I binged on the first seven episodes of Serial over a two-day period and thoroughly enjoyed them. It was a true crime cold case, but it seemed like Sarah Koenig, the central journalist and narrator of the story, was uncovering new evidence, moving us closer to answering that critical question. Was Adnan Syed, the man serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, guilty or innocent? If the series had wrapped up around episode eight, with the conclusion that our justice system is deeply flawed, I would have rated it highly.

But as things dragged on, it increasingly felt like the investigation was going in circles, and the question of the main character’s innocence was hinging on ever more trivial details. By episode 11, I was officially hate-listening. In that episode, Koenig began dissecting an incident from Syed's adolescence in which he stole some money from the donation box at his mosque. She was moving beyond combing minor details to trafficking in rumors that had no bearing on the murder case.

Koenig spent time on rumors that had no bearing on the murder case

Syed, by this point, was clearly sick of the show as well. He demanded to know why she was humiliating him in front of millions of listeners with questions about petty crimes he committed as a teenager. Koenig doesn’t make any excuses for her behavior, but she doesn’t stop either. Instead she trotted out anonymous sources who performed various feats of character assassination with her blessing.

The final episode does its best to offer some kind of resolution. Koenig says she can’t know for sure if Adnan is guilty or not, but that having looked at all the evidence, she is certain that he should not have been convicted, that the case was too thin to clear the hurdle of reasonable doubt. And yet just minutes earlier her fellow producer had declared Adnan is either guilty or the unluckiest man alive, running down a list of all the coincidences that would’ve had to happen for his story to hold up.

When you cast people as characters, you owe them great restraint

In graduate school I was assigned to read Janet Malcolm’s seminal work, The Journalist and the Murderer. Its most famous line neatly encapsulates everything that I find so frustrating with Serial. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Put another way, when you make a real person the main character in your plot and create narrative around them, you need to be aware that it’s often an abusive and humiliating experience for them.

I’m not saying that reporters shouldn’t pursue true crime stories. There is room in the world for a more serious treatment of crime than Law and Order. Serial could have been a fascinating examination of our justice system, through the stories of the characters involved in this one cold case. But, for me at least, Koenig lost sight of Malcolm's essential maxim and dragged the drama on beyond what the the facts of the story could support.