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What we talk about when we talk about 'Serial'

(Image courtesy of Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass)
(Image courtesy of Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass)

(Image courtesy of Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass) (Image courtesy of Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass)

Note: This contains minor spoilers for the podcast "Serial." Specific details are kept to a minimum, but broader points are detailed. If you would like to listen to the podcast before reading further, you can do so here.

If you're the kind of person who knows what a podcast is, you have either been ranting and raving about "Serial" for the last several weeks or pretending to listen to someone who has. From the creators of public radio mainstay "This American Life," "Serial" is nothing short of a new media phenomenon, garnering an escalating audience of millions — unprecedented in what was previously considered to be a niche medium. "Serial" has a following the size of its closest TV kin, serialized murder mysteries "Fargo" and "True Detective."

Unlike those stories, "Serial" is entirely true. The podcast is hosted by Sarah Koenig, an investigative journalist who implicates herself into the story through personal interpretations, conversing with key subjects and maddeningly blurring the lines of reporter and manipulative storyteller.

While adding another layer to the story that makes it more interesting, it forces the narrative to stray as far as possible away from the structure of news magazine murder mysteries like "Dateline." This is a necessity, because the story itself would be far different in that context.

For 15 years, the case went like this: Hae Min Lee, a 17-year-old at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore suddenly went missing after school on January 13, 1999. Weeks later, her body was found. Attention immediately fell on her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was swiftly booked and convicted of premeditated murder. The lone piece of evidence used to convict him was the testimony of Syed's pot dealer, Jay, who claimed to be an accomplice.

Spoiler alert: The boyfriend did it. Upon further inspection however, it is not even remotely that simple.

After eight months of investigation and nine episodes of relaying that information in carefully constructed chunks, Koenig and her team have woven a complicated web of intrigue that is most easily described as "True Detective" meets "Degrassi." As Koenig and her team reveal massive failures on behalf of the justice system in this case and facts that prove to be completely contradictory, the case becomes the kind of spellbinding conundrum that forces you to connect pictures with string on a large wall. Each answer raises 10 more questions; yet, at this stage in the game, it's almost impossible to avoid picking a side.

Many are absolutely convinced there is no way that Syed murdered Lee, or, at the very least, there is not enough proof to have put him away for life. After all, there was no forensic evidence, the witness testimony was potentially fed by corrupt prosecutors and, given what evidence can be pieced together, little connects him to the crime other than sheer probability and his lack of an alibi.

Perhaps because of the competing theories at the heart of it all, "Serial" revolves around the death of a real person. Not only a person, but a teenager with an entire life of agony and ecstasy ahead of her, cut short in an unimaginably horrific way — manual strangulation. Listeners are encouraged by every moving piece of their moral compass to want justice done, and if Syed is innocent, Lee not only died in vain, but her killer took others down with her. Alternatively, if the legal system took down her killer after all, only for him to be absolved with millions of people cheering on his release, what kind of sick perversion is that?

"Serial" is nearly impossible to parse objectively, simply because the facts of the case do not make sense under any objective measure. The evidence collected tells a nonsensical story. The way the parties involved with the case behave are nonsensical. Whether you choose to believe Adnan or his accuser, or have filled in the gaps with fragments of fiction like "Brick," "Twin Peaks" and "The Wire," stories that all share eerie similarities to this one, nothing really fits together.

While Koenig and her team say they plan to "get to the bottom" of the story, presumably by the end of the year, the expectation is that they won't. The botched police investigation let all the potentially useful information crumble into dust because investigators were more interested in an easy conviction than a solved crime.

It is a sad fact that we may never know what happened to Hae Min Lee, but that does not make the first season of "Serial" a meaningless effort. In an attempt to reheat a cold case, Koenig has ignited an inferno that tells us more about ourselves than the people she is covering. As a serialized work of creative nonfiction, that is a rare triumph achieved only by the best works of art we get the privilege to experience.

"Serial" is now available on iTunes and at New episodes will be released on Thursdays starting Dec. 4.


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