Let me ask you a weird question: where were you at 2:30 PM on January 13th, 1999? No idea? Me neither. I might have been at school? Maybe not. Probably not. There’s no reason for that day to be special that I can think of. Putting aside the fact that it was fifteen years ago, I couldn’t describe in detail any particular day in high school without some touchstone event to tie it to. Rigid routine and aching boredom have made the majority of high school a dismal blur, thank Vishnu. More to the point, though, routine erases a lot of our memories. You work a normal-ish job or maintain a semi-consistent schedule of day to day tasks? Where were you six months ago? Six weeks? You sort of have an idea where you should have been, but if you weren’t, do you remember why? So strange, how memory works, how our brains pick out which days remain important.
On that day in 1999, Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore, was murdered. A few months later her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Sayed, was convicted of the crime and began a life sentence. Everything in between these two events was fubar, and that’s the focus of This American Life’s protege podcast, Serial. Rather than telling us one story every week, Serial tells one story over many weeks, like a book divided into chapters. I won’t go into all the details, because the first episode sums it up quite neatly, but the broad strokes are: girl gets murdered, ex-boyfriend becomes a suspect (obviously), his friend tells the cops that they buried the body together and where to find evidence, cops take his word and stop following any of their many other leads, ex-boyfriend goes to prison. Seems pretty pat, yeah? Except that the whole case hinges on that one friend’s statement, which changed several times and contains a ton of provably false information. These are the nitty gritty itty bitties that our reporter/narrator has spent a year obsessing over. And now she’s passed that obsession on to us, like a drug dealer. Thanks so much.
Serial has only put out nine episodes. In those nine weeks they’ve broken every podcast record, even blowing This American Life out of the water. That’s mighty impressive. However, now that it’s become one of those things people talk about in fevered tones, it’s time for the criticism to kick in. Which is totally fine. No one creates in a vacuum, nor should they. One complaint that I’ve seen probably more than any other is that the show is exploitative, taking a very real tragedy and a lot of peoples’ pain and turning it into a twelve-week episode of CSI, basically. I can understand the argument that it’s a real event whereas all those cop shows are fiction. But then I have to wonder how far down their cable menu these writers actually surf, because there are whole networks dedicated to Forensic Files and FBI Unlocked and Cold Case and every other reality show/docudrama based on real murders, and those assholes don’t have a single fuck to give about treating those cases delicately or sensitively. It’s pure sensationalism, and you don’t get to be all riled up about it just because it’s suddenly appealing to the NPR set. Sorry.
Which brings me to the second thing that seems to come up in every single article slamming Serial: Sarah Koenig, the narrator/reporter/mastermind, as well as the entire production staff on the show, are as white as you would expect NPR employees to be. The victim was Asian, the convicted a Muslim, and the primary witness black. The accusation that she’s whitewashing the story seems pretty unfounded, though. To say that she’s invoking a stereotype in talking about Hae Min Lee’s academic achievements and her strict Asian mother is utter crap precisely because Hae Min Lee had many academic achievements and a strict Asian mother! It’s not a stereotype, it’s a fact. Does she harp on it or make it a big deal? Not really. Is it relevant? Yes. If only to bring up the more important point that she had a series of boyfriends and sketchy extracurricular activities that her family didn’t know about. The same goes for Adnan. She’s not painting him as the good boy his parents thought he was, but showing us that he was a normal teenager, sneaking out to see a girl or smoke a joint. Her making a point out of these kids’ defying their parents’ stereotypes doesn’t reinforce the stereotypes, in my opinion. I think it makes the stereotypes irrelevant and solidifies these people as just regular folks. But, to be fair, I’m white. Maybe I’m not hearing what these critics are hearing.
However, to say that Koenig and her team are doing outsider reporting merely because of race is a bit reductionist, isn’t it? To come into any community and ask about a tragedy like this is going to be outsider reporting. No one is ever going to get the whole story. All those little things that people know about each other in a group of friends or a neighborhood or a high school, you can’t ever collect them all, and I’d say the bulk of them certainly wouldn’t end up in evidence (particularly when there’s lazy police work). I grew up in a small town with an insanely small minority population, and I’d be willing to bet that if this team of reporters came there to ask about a murder, they’d have exactly the same problems, regardless of race. It’s all about knowing the right questions to ask to the right people, where the connections are, no matter how tenuous. “His cousin told me that her sister said blah blah blah when they went over to Billy Bob’s to get high on the night in question.” Did the cops ask Billy Bob? No, because the cops have no idea that Billy Bob is relevant, being six degrees removed from the situation. See the problem?
I don’t know whether or not this show is exploiting someone’s nightmare for entertainment. I honestly don’t have the answer. I do know that, for good or for ill, we’re obsessed with murder in our culture. Those of us who are mentally healthy can watch cheesy cop show marathons unscathed. We do dehumanize those people. We must, if we’re going to see their guts splattered around a room. I think what I like most about Serial is that they’re trying to do exactly the opposite and examine the human elements in excruciating detail. Each of the main players’ personalities, the reports and interviews from police, the logic of both teams of lawyers – these are all directly affected by how people interact and communicate. They are not objective. They couldn’t possibly be.
Furthermore, I don’t even think this is a show about a murder, precisely because the murder itself is the thing that there’s the least evidence about. Serial doesn’t examine the murder in depth because it is impossible. Which shouldn’t diminish the fact that this community was devastated by tragedy. It should outrage us that no one satisfactorily scoured the scene or ran with every little piece of information until they couldn’t run anymore. It should outrage us that they stuck a seventeen year-old boy in prison for life because it was an easy fix. It should outrage us that Hae Min Lee’s killer might have gotten away, might do it again. And even if it pokes the wounds of the people personally affected, I’m glad that we’re all hearing this story and getting outraged together. Not for entertainment’s sake, obviously, although I do enjoy the show, but for the sake of getting to the bottom of it all, to figure out what really happened and whether or not justice has been carried out.
So, yeah. Go check out Serial. There are nine episodes so far. They’re skipping next week because of Thanksgiving, so if you get hooked you’ll have to wait until December for episode ten. We can all suffer together. The suspense is truly horrible. But you’ll have my blog to tide you over. See? I take care of you, don’t I? Damn right I do.