Conflicting Evidence – A Review of Serial [Updated!]

Serial_(podcast)_logoI just got home from a brutal road trip. It was rough.

But it would’ve been a lot rougher if not for Season 1 of Serial.

Serial is a podcast narrated by Sarah Koenig.  It tells the story of Koenig’s investigation into the fifteen year old murder of high school student Hae Lee.  Adnan Syed was found guilty of the crime in February 2000, but things might not be quite as they seem.

Koenig and her partners investigated the murder for over a year and involved everyone from hired investigators to UVA Law’s Innocence Project Clinic.  They spoke to almost everyone involved in the events related to the murder in what amounted to an impressive volume of research.

The story is told over 12 installments, beginning with Koenig setting the scene and culminating in her reflections on the year’s efforts and findings.

Here are some of my thoughts on Serial…

 

No Conclusion

We should get this out of the way, because it’s a big one.

If your enjoyment of Serial will hinge on whether or not it arrives at an “answer,” you will be disappointed.

Because the first episode begins with Koenig describing how she’d investigated the case for almost a year, I naively assumed that the investigation was done, and there was an “answer” waiting at the end of the season.

Wrong.

Ultimately, Koenig is unable to affirm or deny Adnan’s guilt.

 

A Strong Start…

Koenig spent the early episodes setting the scene and discussing the events surrounding the murder.  She did a wonderful job developing the setting and relevant characters.  I was invested.

Then she did something remarkable.

She appeared to uncover and share new evidence in a case that was over 15 years old.

In fact, Koenig brought forth enough evidence that the original case against Adnan appeared improbable.

(Note, this is not to say he is innocent; the idea that Adnan killed Hae and the government’s case in his original trial are two different things.)

But….

 

A Poor Finish

Hindenburg_disaster,_1937

I’m being a touch dramatic with this one

The podcast’s pace dropped precipitously in the second half.

As the show continued, it felt like Koenig hit a wall in discovery of evidence.  She began to rehash a lot of what we’d seen before, and she spent hours chasing down rumors of questionable importance.  My interest waned.

Koenig actually spent the series’ 11th episode chasing a rumor regarding Adnan having stolen money from his mosque’s donation pot.

It was terrible.

That the story both slowed towards the end and was unable to reach a final conclusion made Serial painfully anticlimactic.

 

Investigation Ongoing

Koenig began to release the podcast while her investigation was ongoing.  As the podcast reached unforeseen levels of fame, it created a fascinating dynamic that became apparent in later episodes.  Koenig spent hours either interviewing people that had called in with information or tracking down rumors they clued her onto.

That the investigation was ongoing during the course of the podcast has also been a source of ethical criticism of Serial If you’re interested in reading more about the ethics of Serial, take a look at this article.

 

An Impartial Narrator?

Koenig clearly became attached to Adnan during the course of her investigation.  She reports having spoken to him for over 30 hours and talks often of how charismatic and intelligent he is.

She has been criticized for letting this affect her judgment.

I would tend to agree.  It did affect her judgment.

But I have mixed feelings on how that impacts my enjoyment of the work.

I respect the fact that her partiality affects the narrative of Hae’s murder.  We only ever get to see what she shows us, and a layer of credibility is lost if we can’t trust her impartiality.

At the same time, Koenig herself is part of the story.  In fact, she might be its main character.

We are never promised an unfiltered and unbiased data feed of evidence.  Instead, we are promised the opportunity to journey with Koenig through her investigation.  We watch Koenig endure cycles of belief and disbelief and investment and frustration as she brings us through her year of research.  We get to see her attachment to Adnan on full display, even as she acknowledges it shouldn’t affect her feelings regarding his guilt.

Her journey is the story.

This is not to say that Koenig’s conclusions aren’t questionable.  In fact, I disagree with her.  Others find her conclusions downright absurd.

Either way, it is up to us to remember that we are being presented with a highly filtered version of a massive quantity of information.  

 

The Verdict

Overall, Serial is worth the ten or so hours it takes to listen to it.  The story is captivating and thought provoking, although the second half and ending are underwhelming and detract from the overall experience.

Serial was – and remains – a massively popular podcast, and its first season was a Peabody Award winner.  Koenig serves as a compelling narrator, and she succeeds in bringing many of the other characters to life.

Because of the way it fizzled at the end, I wouldn’t recommend you go out of your way to listen to it.  But if you happen to have a road trip coming up or a podcast friendly hobby, give it a shot.

 

OTS Score: 7.5

 

[UPDATED]:

If you’re interested, Jay has opened up about the murder in an interview with The Intercept.  

It’s an interesting account, although it raises a lot of questions.  It also goes further in pointing out the ethical problems related to Serial.

Enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Conflicting Evidence – A Review of Serial [Updated!]

  1. Generally a good review, though I was less bored with the second half than you were. The blog you link to, Ann Brocklehurst, is quite an odd duck herself. She likes to write about intimate partner violence, and when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. She clearly sees what she wants to see in the case.

    People who get obsessed with Serial generally go on to the podcasts about the podcast:
    Undisclosed
    http://undisclosed-podcast.com/episodes/
    Serial Dynasty
    http://serialdynasty.podomatic.com/entry/2015-04-29T11_46_22-07_00
    Cold N. Holefield
    https://catcherinthelie.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/episode-1-jays-a-wilds-crazy-guy/

    • Hey Mudge,
      Thank you so much for your comment!

      I’ll agree that the Ann Brocklehurst blog about Serial was extreme. It was just one of the more vehement “counter” arguments I found. I found some of what she said compelling, but as you pointed out (and I sort of mentioned in my review above), we have to keep in mind the motivations and proclivities of the people that present the information to us. Having not gone through the volume of data myself, it is an inevitability that my opinions become colored by those that present it to me.

      I think that’s what’s interesting about this case at the end of the day. There are a lot of ways to look at it, and each side leaves things unexplained with their theories. I think that’s exactly why the podcast was so compelling and why so many podcasts/sites/blogs/whatevers have been developed off of it.

      Thanks again, for your comment!

      Chris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *