There was a period of time, and it must have been a short one, between when I learned about the premise of the popular podcast Serial (“one story told over several weeks”) and when I found out what it was actually going to be about. Believe it or not, I didn’t immediately think the podcast would center around a real murder case. Foolish old me thought the idea of telling a long narrative from different points of view and through specific details would be intriguing enough, no matter the subject. Instead, journalist and producer Sarah Koenig explores a murder from 1999 in which a Baltimore teen, Hae Min Lee, was found dead and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, sentenced to life in prison. The results were engrossing and fascinating and harrowing, as well as unsettling for a variety of reasons, and even though you’ve probably read a gajillion articles about Serial by now, I’m pitching in my two cents.
Before we get ahead of ourselves: Yes, I consistently listened to and, for lack of a better word, “enjoyed” Serial, for the most part. Yes, I have a nagging automatic hipsterly distrust of anything overwhelmingly popular that is almost certainly born out of a need to make myself feel smarter and more special. And I would like to begin, as you pretty much have to these days, by invoking what I often refer to as Sarkeesian’s Law: “It is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s [sic] more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
In this case, the most problematic aspect of Serial, at least for me, has less to do with the content and more with the way that content has been structured and marketed. I’m not sure I’d say this show is especially “exploitative” per se, not more than most true crime accounts, anyway, but it heads down a dangerous road by using fictional TV tools to spice up its presentation, like Ira Glass giving us a “Previously On” at the beginning of each episode. Since many listeners will be downloading the show all at once, is this “Previously On” really there for recap purposes or to remind us of some of the great times we’ve had watching TV? It’s especially ridiculous since we can’t see any of the people being quoted in snippets, as we would with Battlestar Galactica or something. And what about Sarah warning us of “spoilers” before telling us important information? What would she be spoiling, exactly? This is her show! How can a show spoil itself? (Aside from, you know, not being good).
From the beginning, we’ve talked about Serial the same way we talk about fictional narratives. Patton Oswalt called Serial his “new favorite TV show, movie and book.” Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic said “the plot was riveting.” Many have used the phrase “murder mystery” or compared it to other, fictional crime shows like True Detective. You don’t even have to look that deep to find these comparisons: from the beginning, the producers openly said they wanted to create a series that would be “like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”
Except when you post an article speculating about who killed who “on Serial”, you’re talking about real people. When you suggest that Jay’s girlfriend might have “done it” in a “crazy theory,” you’re accusing a flesh-and-blood person who could read that on the internet. This sort of blurring the lines of real people and “characters” isn’t new, or exclusive to Serial, obviously, and it doesn’t erase any of the podcast’s achievements. But it also doesn’t change the fact that we were often encouraged to think of this as a drama, not an investigative report, and that made me feel a little dirty.
There’s an easy solution for the Serial team to avoid generating any kinds of queasy feelings next time: Don’t cover a murder. Take this format, which has boundless possibilities, and go somewhere truly unexpected with it. Even though I said earlier that the content of the show isn’t the problem, in this case content inevitably affects form. Would we be talking about Serial if it didn’t more closely reflect the kind of cop show we always see on TV? If it placed us in a stranger, more experimental narrative environment and challenged us to take it on its own terms, and not in comparison to something more familiar? Let’s find out! Changing the game would be best on just about every possible level. Focusing on another case like this really would cement the comparisons between this show and its other, fictional counterparts, and not for the better.
Weirdly enough, it’s kind of the same thing I hope True Detective’s second season will do. Serial’s only limit is its format, not any particular story. And yet, there are already people who want the show to cover another murder and even have suggestions for which one. If we go down that road, it should be a few short seasons until Koenig is basically the aural equivalent of the Unsolved Mysteries guy.
It all reminds me of the late, great Neil Postman, who once postulated that television, which has its own philosophy and values, has changed the way we view our lives. Even though the institution of television may have been challenged by other formats recently, its core principles have triumphed well into the 21st century. Have you ever wondered why YouTube video series, podcasts and graphic novels group themselves into “seasons” like TV shows when they don’t have to? It’s a word we’re all familiar with from consuming television. It legitimizes other newer forms. It sells. I can’t be the only one who finds it weird that the This American Life crew is cribbing from Netflix originals to stay relevant. At this rate, it’s just a matter of time before Terry Gross gets her own Kardashian-style reality show and David Bianculli is giving homebodies surprise TV review-writing lessons.
Over the years, the Ira Glass Dream Machine has produced hours of fascinating, challenging and inspiring material, and never has it made me feel so morally conflicted. Obviously, if all of this attention leads to an overall net good, or some injustice being corrected, my opinion may change (Adnan’s family does seem to be grateful overall for the way it’s brought them back together, even if the online fallout from the show has been something of a mixed blessing, and his friends are raising money to support him basedon the podcast’s success). Until then, I believe Serial has the makings of a great show, but only if it stops trying to be so much of a “show” in the first place.