Back in the 19th century, famous authors Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy would serialize their novels for the papers. Readers could check in with Bleak House or Jude the Obscure on a weekly basis. Even though soap operas have serialized fictional lives for decades, it has only been recently that series like Fargo, Homeland and True Detective have presented complete plots in a serialized format instead of an episodic one. This new kind of series season consists of one plot line, one story. There is a beginning and an end. The series could end after a single season, like a book without a sequel.
That kind of story telling has come to podcasting with the new This American Life spinoff, Serial. Serial presents one single story, in this case told over twelve episodes. TAL alum Sarah Koenig breaks down the elements of the story and constructs a gripping narrative that will leave you on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next.
Her first serial is a whodunit based on a real life crime and mystery. Who killed Hae Min Lee, a pretty and smart high school student from Baltimore? We know at the outset that her well-liked, equally smart boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime based on the testimony of his friend Jay, who confessed to helping dispose of the body. But there was no physical evidence linking Adnan to the crime and, in the end, what gets Adnan locked away for life is that he can’t account for about thirty minutes of his life on the cold January day in 1999 when Hae disappeared. Was he at the library like he said, and some of his friends back up? Or was he riding around in Hae’s car, looking for an opportunity to strangle her?
What is really fascinating about this series is Koenig herself flips back and forth on Adnan’s culpability as she peels back the layers of the onion of this story. The series is twelve episodes long and Koenig is still in the midst of recording. We will know what conclusion she comes to just about the time that she comes to one, though she says she has about as much information as the prosecutors and the detectives have on the case. She’s just missing one or two bits to put the whole thing together- or have her theory blown apart.
She has already discarded the prosecutors’ theory for what motivated Adnan to do it, if he did. I was likewise convinced that the motive was an improbable stretch but the fact that the jury didn’t think so is more interesting to me. What we find out in this serial is that there’s more going on here than just a murder. There are a lot of assumptions that every character caught up in the investigation and trial is making. It seems like a specific motive and suspect was zeroed in on like a tractor beam from the very beginning and cultural influences may have lead to confirmation bias. That confirmation bias may explain why some people were dismissed as suspects or witnesses earlier and why some people were believed too soon.
In any case, I have no idea how this serial is going to end but I’m fascinated by the great storytelling. If you have a house to clean, subscribe to the podcast for the first three episodes of binge listening. Start from the beginning so you don’t miss a thing.
Five sponges. Highly recommended.