Nearly four months after the premiere of “Serial,” I finally experienced the cultural phenomenon that was Sarah Koenig’s murder-mystery podcast. A spinoff from NPR’s “This American Life,” Koenig’s project was a 12-episode audio program that reexamined the 1999 killing of a Korean-American high school girl. I’m not a fan of true crime narratives in general and avoided “Serial” at first, but eventually I listened to the podcast almost straight through on a long car trip—just before hearing that the Maryland Court of Appeals has decided to take one more look at the case of the convicted murderer Adnan Syed, the story’s main character.
The show has received 68 million downloads thus far and countless plaudits for its “long form, meticulous” reportage “in an era of dwindling attention spans, deceptively peddled news items known in the industry as ‘click bait,’ and mind-numbing shouting matches on cable news,” as the New York Times recently put it. It’s a kind of detective story, but an unusual one in that the case in question has already been settled in court when the story begins—only now (a decade and half later) a neurotically fixated, self-doubting, winsomely amateurish, frequently confused radio producer has decided to take another look at the evidence against the victim’s ex-boyfriend, as well as the holes in the prosecution’s case.
To me the project felt like one of those endless, unproductive, late-night Google searches in which it becomes clear that whatever you’re looking for will never turn up, yet you keep going anyway because there’s just enough irrelevant side-info to keep you entertained while you flail helplessly amid cached GeoCities pages from the late ‘90s. Like the Web itself, the show has an “addictive” quality, and indeed that’s the word most of its fans use to describe it: as presented by Koenig, the mystery of Hae Min Lee’s murder feels bottomless—every account of every detail is contradicted by some other account. It’s the perfect brainteaser, whose stimulation is eternal because it can never be “solved.”
Yet this is true only for a certain kind of obsessive-compulsive mind to which nothing is right until every niggling thing has been put in its correct place—and of course something will always be just a little bit off: hence the “bottomlessness” of “Serial.”
The case against Adnan Syed rests almost entirely on the testimony of an “unreliable” witness named Jay, who says he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. Despite inconsistencies in his various testimonies, the police trusted Jay to give them their man. (That Jay had dealt firsthand with the murderer was obvious: he alone knew where the victim’s car had been stashed after the crime. That he’d had no motive to commit the murder himself also seemed clear.)
It’s a fact that Jay’s testimonies contained inaccuracies. To me, they are the understandable untruths of a kid who, after reluctantly taking part in the criminal cover-up of a murder because of his own distrust of the police and fear of going to them (Jay was a teenage drug dealer in Baltimore, where the “Stop Snitchin’ ” movement began), was seeking to downplay his own involvement to whatever degree possible and to keep his friends and family out of the mess he’d gotten himself into. In the only way that counts, I find Jay wholly believable.
If we are to believe Adnan, on the other hand, we must believe his story that he remained on campus during the time of Hae’s murder, with his car and cell phone still in Jay’s sole possession—even though the cell phone record shows a fairly long outgoing call during that period to a friend of Adnan’s who had never known or spoken to Jay. We have to dismiss as unimportant Adnan’s classmates’ claims that, on the day of her murder, he asked Hae for a ride from school because his car was in the shop, although we know his car was fine. We must believe Adnan’s claim that he doesn’t remember where he was during the evening when Hae’s body was buried because, to him, in his innocence, it was just a normal, unmemorable day—even though it was that very same day when the police first called him to ask about Hae’s disappearance (at which time he was hanging out with Jay at the home of another girl, who said that Adnan’s behavior became very agitated when he received the call). We have to ignore the cell phone calls that pinged the tower near Leakin Park, where Hae’s body was buried, at a point when, by Adnan’s own admission, the cell phone had returned to his possession.
And, given Jay’s indisputable involvement, we must find an alternate suspect within Jay’s social circle—someone else with a connection both to him and to Hae (and presumably a motive as strong as that of a jealous ex-boyfriend). We have to believe, perhaps, that without “CSI”-level forensic evidence, no one should be convicted.
I can’t do any of this, so to me the case seems very, very simple.
But Sarah Koenig can, thanks to her sentimental attachment to Adnan (who, as an articulate, intelligent, handsome guy, makes for the perfect protagonist of a Hitchcockian “wrong man” story) and her addiction to turning over the case’s ambiguities as a kind of useless mental exercise akin to solving a Sudoku.
“Serial” is a show created by a personality disorder, for a personality disorder—with a lofty moral purpose (its inquiry into the problems of our justice system) built in as justification, although naturally the family of the victim hasn’t much enjoyed the resurgence of attention.
Sarah Koenig has written that the show is not “an entertainment” despite its deliberately suspenseful presentation. Now a Maryland court has in some sense affirmed millions of voyeuristic listeners’ intellectual fascination with an especially titillating teenage murder: the show has “made a real impact.” We might also remember that Hae Min Lee was real, and this whole thing is kind of gross.