SERIAL: THE BEST PODCAST EVER?
Last week, I came home from work, sat down on my couch, stared at my not-turned-on television, and kept my headphones plugged into my ears. I stayed like that for two hours. Only then had I caught up on Serial, which many now hail as the best podcast ever. (If we can even call it a podcast…but don’t worry, we’ll get to that later).
As a way of background, Serial details the murder of a high school girl, Hae Min Lee, that occurred in Maryland in 1999. According to the Baltimore Police Department, Lee was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was then found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But as I’m sure you may expect, the story isn’t quite that simple.
As Serial’s narrative unfolds, we become acquainted with the crime’s major players: the alleged murderer, the investigating detectives, the witness on which the state bases its entire case, the fellow student who comes forward with an alibi but is never again consulted, the data experts building the cell phone call logs that turn into important evidence, the streaker who almost too conveniently discovers the body, and the list continues. Nine episodes in, it’s safe to say that the state’s case against Syed is alarmingly weak.
But this isn’t to say that anyone is 100% convinced that the police got the wrong man. To the contrary, no one involved with Serial– the case itself or the reporting on it– seems overly sure of anything. It’s almost as though the case (and by extension the podcast) is destined to be a Pandora’s box: a happening set in a certain time and place that, whenever reopened, provides only ambiguous facts and difficult questions, none of which can be answered easily, if answered at all.
Serial is narrated by its creator, Sarah Koenig, a reporter formerly involved with the popular podcast This American Life. Koenig’s work on Serial is impressive as hell. It’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalism infused with first rate storytelling, and in that sense, I can’t help but draw comparisons to Capote’s In Cold Blood–a book that both invented the true crime genre and revolutionized journalism by pushing the medium towards creative non-fiction writing.
This comparison brings us to the first reason why Serial is so special: it’s not really a podcast (or at least not how we traditionally classify and imagine them). It comes to us more in the tradition of In Cold Blood than, say, Marc Maron’s WTF or NPR’sFresh Air. The difference is that, unlike interview podcasts, which are expository in nature, Serial tells a story that forces its listeners to think and imagine actively. Further, as a story told through the medium of spoken voice, it splits the atom of representation; it doesn’t provide images like we see in films and television, but it does provide more than literature’s words on a page. Because it exists somewhere in between these mediums–in a storytelling limbo unfamiliar to people in 2014–it’s somewhat foreign, almost as though it comes to us from a different time. The result: a feeling that’s vaguely nostalgic but also vaguely intimate, almost like our desire to tune in to Koening’s voice flows from our desire to turn back time to an era where families sat around radios and listened to FDR’s Fireside chats.
Serial does take us back in time, though. It sends us back to high school in a strange and confusing way. It reminds us what it was like to be a high schooler–jealous significant others, note passing in class, dilly dallying between the day’s final bell and sports practices–but it also reminds us, in an almost Lynchian fashion, of the dark underbelly of American youth. At points in the narrative, the high schoolers behave exactly like high schoolers are expected to behave. They write diaries and attend track practice; they compile sources of annotated bibliographies (the worst).
At other moments, it feels like the characters are in the middle of a noir, and in these moments, the typical expectations of high school students are suddenly and noticeably inverted. Characters lounge at billiard halls and rendezvous with drug dealers; an older man who drives a sports car enters the scene to date a younger girl. A circle of friends is shocked when they hear their missing friend was strangled, her body dumped in a nearby park. This juxtaposition–banal high school moments followed by dark and seemingly foreboding scenes–provides a rich fabric with which to thread together the story of Hae Min Lee and Woodlawn High.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Serial excels because it reminds us that truth is often elusive and, at times, unattainable. Even now, a full fifteen years later, the state’s evidence surrounding Lee’s murder contains fundamental gaps and seemingly irreconcilable inconsistencies. There are issues with the state’s timeline, uncertainties surrounding how to interpret the cell phone data, massive holes in the memories of witnesses. We cannot even say whether the pay phone Syed allegedly used right after committing the murder existed. This, often times, is reality: a faulty construction built from a hodgepodge of interpretation, recollection, and imagination. Serial, because it is based on a real event with real people, drives this home in a way that is equally clear and terrifying.
Throughout history people have attempted to process events like the one discussed in Serial. We try to understand senseless acts of violence in a logical way; we dissect witness testimony and timelines, we study ballistic reports and forensic evidence that are far from 100% accurate, we order psychological examinations and studies, we re-imagine the arguments and altercations that eventually gave rise to crime scenes. We pursue understanding because we hope that it brings with it a way to derive meaning from such events.
But much like truth, and much to our displeasure, meaning is elusive. Meaning isn’t concrete; it’s not a variable that pops out of a preordained formula. In the real world, finding meaning is a sticky and dynamic process, much like Stuart Hall’s vision of nailing jello to a wall. As soon as we try to fix meaning permanently, it trickles away in different directions; the second we declare authoritatively what an event does or does not mean, the meaning we announce begins to evolve.
The only constant in a world where meaning continuously changes, according to Hall, is state power. It is the state’s role to fix meaning in our world. The state is the final arbitrator; it determines what is true and untrue and, as a result, what an event means. Woodlawn’s reaction to Hae Min Lee’s murder is no different. Unable to comprehend Hae Min Lee’s death, the state acted swiftly and decisively. The police apprehended Syed, constructed a narrative through which to interpret the crime, and refused to diverge or question the reality of that narrative. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced. And just like that, the story of Hae Min Lee was wrapped up neatly with a bow on top. Justice had been served, a killer had been taken off the streets, an innocent girl’s parents could sleep at night. The town of Woodlawn could understand a previously unintelligible event; meaning was provided to an entire community.
If it weren’t for Sarah Koening and Serial, that’s how things would have remained in Woodlawn. Instead, we are invited to meet the people of Woodlawn and reexamine the events surrounding Hae Min Lee’s murder. Each week, we question the state’s findings, reinterpret the state’s narrative, and remake the meaning surrounding the event. Serial’s so contagious precisely for this reason: it reminds us how rewarding it is to fight for truth, how great it can feel to mine for meaning.
This was originally published on broplushipster. Be sure to check it out!