In case you don't know (unlikely) Serial was a weekly podcast - now finished but you can still listen to it - examining the murder of a high school girl in Baltimore in 1999, for which her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend was convicted and is still in jail. He has always said he was innocent, and the story is compelling because he seems like a nice guy and everyone who knew him is sure he couldn't have done it, so the reporter investigates the story, and feeds out the details and her evolving thoughts, each week.
To me, sitting in my podcast-listening chair on the other side of the world, with no journalism, legal or sleuthing experience whatsoever, it doesn't seem implausible to me that the convicted person committed this crime. I'm on board with what the podcast says about his conviction being wrongful given the slim evidence at the time, but whether that makes him innocent is a completely different question.
Serial has its detractors, who have criticised Sarah Koenig's naive-sounding spoken style, the lack of focus on the murder victim, packaging a murder as entertainment, and more. Fans love the compelling narrative, the sleuthing, the character studies, the details about the life of a group a high schoolers 15 years ago, and the phone interviews with the convicted subject of the podcast.
I found Serial really compelling and I found Sarah Koenig to be thoughtful, fair and a great narrator. But I found it a bit frustrating as well, for the same reasons I found it really, really interesting. In short, these are:
- Sorry, but WHY are you so convinced this guy is innocent? because he is likeable and well-spoken?
- Did everyone have pagers back in 1999?
- The girl killed comes across as just a lovely, wonderful person. So awful her life was just taken. It's horrendous and terrifying that this is even possible.
- The idea of the psycopath or sociopath is overused I think. People who think this guy is guilty posit that he is a charming psychopath. I don't think you have to be a psycopath to kill someone, and then steadily talk yourself out of having done it, for years after. I can imagine this happening to a fairly normal person. I'm not saying this is what happened, but just that the only possibilities are not innocent, crime of passion or psychopath.
- How much store can we set on people's memories of events 15 years ago? Studies have shown again and again how fallible - and changeable - memory is. Memories of events so long ago are next to useless, I would think.
- Our ideas of motive and wrong-doing might be shaped too much by crime shows like Law and Order, where everything makes sense. In real life, it seems people do things for stupid or hazy reasons, and have contradictory impulses.
- I would not make a good detective. I kept being underwhelmed by key pieces of Serial sleuthing like "the Neisha call" and whether or not there was a phone booth at Best Buy. Details, details, I kept thinking. Faulty memories, incidental lies, whatever? I'd be a terrible detective.
- People are strange and at times ridiculous. Was Adnan a nice guy or a killer? Was Jay a good guy, a thug, an innocent over his head, or a career criminal? Why would people get involved to the extent they did, or lie, or help bury bodies, or kill people without motive (depending on who is telling the truth)?
- Everyone does it - we all do it all the time - but trying to analyse what sort of person someone is, whether or not they "could do it" and whether or not they are lying, is pretty impossible. The times I felt most uncomfortable listening to Serial were listening to people theorise on these things, when really no one can actually know by analysing
- Is this a particularly weird and messy case, or are many murders, when looked at in detail, like this? (Interestingly though, there is one episode where a detective asked precisely this question said no, this case is particularly weird/messy. Which makes sense, as this is the one that ended up as a podcast). It's fascinating how absolutely none of the theories and timelines put forward quite add up - no matter who you think committed the crime, none of the possible versions (that we know about) quite makes sense.
- It's interesting how some players remember so much, and others so little, 15 years later. (I find memory really, really fascinating).
- This was quite a brave project. Sarah Koenig really laid herself bare throughout this, and it's easy to make fun or criticise, but her honesty on her thought processes and opinions is really likeable, even when you don't agree with her.
Did you listen to Serial? What did you think?