Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Devouring "Serial"

I wouldn't say that LOST was my favourite TV show of all time, yet I was surely more into it than any other show I've ever watched.  By 'into,' I mean that in terms of discussing the show, reading about it online, arguing about theories and all of the other methods that mark 21st century pop culture fandom, I clearly spent more time on LOST than any other program, by far.  I wouldn't necessarily say that talking about the show was more fun than actually watching it (say what you will about the show "not answering enough questions" or not ending on a strong note, but LOST certainly delivered more than enough tremendous episodes to reward all of this fan obsession) but all of the theorization took on a separate life of its own.  For those who are just watching LOST for the first time now, I daresay that something would be missing from the overall experience by being years removed from all of the crazy internet message board speculation. 

This came to mind when I was listening to 'Serial,' the Sarah Koenig podcast that has become incredibly popular over the last months and developed its own world of online analysis (most notably on Reddit).  For those unaware of the podcast, a recap: Koenig is researching and investigating the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore teenager killed in January 1999.  Adnan Syed, Lee's ex-boyfriend, was convicted of the murder and is still in jail to this day, and Koenig was first made aware of the case by an advocate who believes Syed is innocent and was railroaded by the criminal justice system.  Over each of the 12 episodes, Koenig looks at a different aspect of the original crime and Syed's subsequent trial.  It's about as exhaustive a look as can be expected, though there are naturally some major omissions --- Koenig's interview requests were declined by several major witnesses, the investigating detectives and the state prosector, plus Syed's defence attorney died several years ago.

Let's be clear, something like LOST is a fictional show, and Serial is a real-life situation.  It feels weird to say I'm a "fan" of Serial, per se, since obviously I take no enjoyment in this horrible crime.  It's very much worth noting that Hae Min Lee's family also declined to speak to Koenig, and one has to figure they're more than a little unsettled by her murder suddenly becoming a pop culture hot topic.  This isn't a "who killed Laura Palmer?" or "who shot J.R." --- Hae Min Lee was an actual person and deserves more than to be simply defined by her murder.

This being said, if you're going to spend a bunch of time analyzing something, there's more benefit to trying to figure out a violent crime than there is in, say, arguing about what the Smoke Monster is.  There has been an incredible amount of amateur sleuthing about every aspect of Serial, from looking at public record documents of Syed's trial to minute analysis of the cellphone records that form such a key part of the case.  Of course, this type of crowd-sourced detective work has led to no end of alternate theories and, frankly, some crackpot theories that would seem silly if they weren't making allegations about actual peoples' lives.

While Koenig was initially approached about the case as a way to exonerate Syed, she took a more pragmatic approach.  The very nature of the podcast seems to be an argument that Syed is innocent and that Serial is about discovering what REALLY happened, yet as the weeks went on, Koenig was careful to remain as neutral as possible.  Her final conclusion in the last episode was that Syed shouldn't have been convicted in court due to the very thin evidence presented at trial, though that doesn't necessarily mean Syed is actually innocent of the crime.  She quite openly admitted her own flip-flopping opinions of the case, thinking at certain points that Syed was innocent and at other times finding some pretty damning pieces of evidence.*

* = For all of the Serial critics who claim that the podcast is "championing a murderer," keep in mind that perhaps the biggest anti-Adnan point (producer Dana's "if he's innocent, then he must be the unluckiest person in the world for ALL of this stuff to go against him on that day" argument) was saved for the last 20 minutes of the last episode, almost as sort of a concluding statement.  I thought the placement of Dana's argument to be very telling and perhaps a hint as to the producers' true feelings about the case, though they didn't want to outright say it because everything was so circumstantial.

This unsettled nature only added to why the podcast was so fascinating.  Since it was real life, there was no promise of actual answers or a big conclusion in the final episode, and in general, there were stunningly few actual facts established about the case over the 12 episodes.  Almost every bit of evidence was circumstantial, leading to endless speculation about any tidbit of information --- a call pinging off a certain cellphone tower could be interpreted by some as proof that Syed is guilty, or interpreted by others as proof of his innocence.  Adding to the confusion and meta nature of Serial was that it was still evolving as the actual podcast was airing.  Koenig was still writing the episodes in real time, leading to things like other sources (Hae's then-boyfriend, a co-worker of sole witness Jay) coming forward to speak after hearing earlier episodes and wanting to clear some things up or add new details.  Of course, one could also note that these sources have now been influenced by Serial itself; perhaps their stories would've been different had they been willing to talk to Koenig when she was "just a reporter" initially, not to "a reporter on a nationally-known podcast."

It's for these reasons of source bias that I wonder how difficult it will be for Koenig and company to create their second season of Serial next fall.  Unless they've started already (which seems unlikely given how they were still so deep in the Hae Min Lee case), whatever case or story they choose to examine next will invariably now be impacted by the fact that Serial is now a thing.  I guess this doesn't necessarily make it different than any other news program, though there'd certainly be more internet focus on the subject of the next Serial rather than, say, the subject of a random 60 Minutes story. 

I actually wonder if the next series could almost be a continuation of the Hae Min Lee investigation, since the case just keeps evolving.  Thanks to Serial, Syed's case was taken on by The Innocence Project, and Syed is also trying to get an appeal heard in court.  There's also the fact that Jay has now gone on record with The Intercept, another media outlet, giving his side on the case (and providing, by the way, yet another timeline of what happened on 1/13/1999).  The whole thing is so fluid that you wonder if Koenig will, at the very least, give us one more episode to see how things have developed, or if the Innocence Project's requests for DNA testing on Hae's body reveals something truly earth-shattering.

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