A long time ago, Thursdays were known for Must-See TV. But this October, Thursdays have become a can’t-miss pop-cultural date for a completely different reason: an audio podcast.
Ira Glass and the folks behind This American Life radio recently launched “Serial,” an addictive podcast about a gruesome murder and the curious court case that convicted a 17-year-old kid. And it’s better than the best episode of Law & Order because it features the actual people who lived through the tragedy—plus, you have no clue how it’s going to end. It’s narrated by former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who accepted the challenge to re-investigate the 1999 strangling of a Baltimore teenager named Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend, a son of Muslim immigrants named Adnan Syed, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but he’s always maintained his innocence.
In the podcast’s first six episodes, listeners have been riveted by the details of the case; Koenig has tracked down old witnesses, old associates of Hae and Adnan, and old police recordings and court transcripts. The case against Adnan appears flimsy: There was no substantial physical evidence linking him to the crime, and the prosecution relied heavily on cell-phone records and the testimony of a slightly sketchy witness named Jay. A friend of Adnan’s, Jay claimed to police that he’d helped his pal dig the shallow grave in which they dumped Hae’s body after Adnan had killed her.
But there are so many loose threads in the conflicting stories, loose threads that may lead to something—or nothing. The truth seems just inches beyond Koenig’s reach, as she tries to reconstruct the events and the relationships that led to tragedy, but with every episode, it almost feels like the truth is further away. Some listeners have compared it to True Detective, but I think a better cinematic comparison is David Fincher’s Zodiac, because like Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive detective, Koenig has fallen through the rabbit hole where every answer inevitably leads to two more questions. Why did Adnan’s friend, Asia, sign an affidavit stating she spoke with him at the library at about the time of the murder—and then back away from that statement when it could’ve made a difference? Why didn’t Adnan’s attorney push harder against the damning cell-phone data that proved to be very convincing, but on closer examination, is revealed to be shredded with holes and inconsistencies? But what about The Nisha Call, the phone call that likely only could’ve been made by Adnan at a time when he claims he didn’t have his cell phone?
Koenig’s fascination is contagious, and I find myself listening to new episodes at least twice—back-to-back, whenever possible—in order to absorb all the new information. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are reserved for going back to previous episodes, to connect the dots and see if there’s some crucial clue just staring us in the face. “Serial” might be the first podcast that has online recaps, including one from Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s friend who initially brought the case to Koenig’s attention. Websites have popped up to illustrate the timeline of the crime and the conflicting testimony, and I’ll admit to digging through the Baltimore Sun‘s news archives for old stories, including ones related to the 2001 disbarment of Adnan’s defense attorney.
Initially, it’s easy to side with Adnan, especially since his amiable prison phone conversations with Koenig provide the spine of the story. He’s charming and intelligent and altogether convincing. You want to believe him. You want to help him, to find that “eureka” piece of evidence that causes the case to crumble and will save him from a lifetime of rot in a western Maryland prison. But I’m still clueless. Is Adnan a typical teenager who got framed for a horrible crime? Or is he a psychopath, manipulating well-intentioned Sarah Koenig in the same way he reportedly maneuvered his high-school friends? In the most recent episode, titled “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” Koenig and Adnan had their first ugly phone-conversation exchange, with Adnan laying into her for claiming that she knows him now and that his “niceness” is part of why she’s involved in the case. His tone shifted, more out of frustration than any malevolence, but it inevitably raised the question: How well does Koenig really know Adnan, and by extension, how well do we know him?
It’s important—though frustrating—to note, that we may never know what really happened. This isn’t True Detective, and there will be no slam-bang series finale juiced to get ratings and give us closure. Koenig has admitted she has no clue where the story is heading, and claims to be unsure of Adnan’s guilt or innocence. I think that’s what makes the podcast so compelling.
Have you been listening to “Serial”? If not, what are you waiting for? And if so, which way are you leaning?