Friday, February 26, 2016

Serial, season 1 (I'm a little behind the curve...minor spoilers ahead!)

I had the Serial podcast all wrong. I must have heard it described as a "whodunnit" or "murder mystery," and I knew that it was a story that was told weekly, in installments, and from that flimsy evidence, I decided it must be fiction. I imagined it as a 1940s-style radio show, with sound effects and a cast of actors.

When I'm wrong, I'm really, really wrong.

Serial (season 1) instead is the true-crime, documentary-style examination of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Hae's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted mostly on the basis of testimony from an acquaintance of his named Jay. But did Adnan really do it? That's the question Serial sets out to answer. When it originally aired in 2014, it captured a large and devoted audience, and after burning through all twelve episodes in less than a week (more podcast-listening than I usually do in a year!), I fully understand the fascination. Spoiler alert: this story doesn't have a satisfying ending.

Serial is good entertainment. Host Sarah Koenig is likable and relatable - she could be you or me digging through this case, and her confusion and eureka moments alike add to the intrigue. All of the main characters are interesting people, and the story itself is just so damned weird. Everything adds up and yet nothing adds up. Things start to make total sense...and suddenly they don't make sense at all. The only thing we know for sure is that someone isn't telling the truth. Or is everyone not telling the truth?

There's a darker side to Serial, though, and one that I didn't think about too much until the enjoyment of listening to it was over: these are real people. Hae was a real girl, who really died a horrible death. Adnan is a real man, who really has spent half of his life in jail for a crime he insists he didn't commit. Jay is real too, and so is his friend Jenn, who corroborates his story, and so is the defense attorney, who died years ago but still plays a major role, and so are all the other people involved - some coming forward only now with new information, some only agreeing to talk after their identity was disguised. The fear, the anger, the pain, it's all real. And that's not a condemnation of the podcast at all. It's more of a observational comment on the entire genre of true crime. I guess I just hadn't put much thought into that before...

I thought some, too, about the popularity of this story. Don't get me wrong, it's a great story; obviously I got sucked into it. But I think maybe the real allure is in the unsolvable nature of it. Even if Adnan did do it, there are too many lingering mysteries to erase all reasonable doubt. I kept thinking how helpful it would be if I had someone like Sarah Koenig on call to do investigations into my own life. I have all sorts of loose ends, unanswered questions, and personal frustrations that haunt me. Why did this happen? What did that mean? Did I go through all of that and that was it? Or was there more? What did I not know that would have made all of this make more sense?

That kind of train of thought is my brain chatter pretty much from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I'm guessing I'm not unique in that...but it was fun to spend a few hours over a few days letting all of that go to focus on someone else's unsolvable problems. And Serial's popularity proves I wasn't unique in that either...

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