Behind the scenes of 'Serial': An interview with co-creator Julie Snyder
It’s already fairly obvious that today’s best TV shows aren’t actually on television: You’ll find them on Netflix, or Amazon, or some dark corner of the Internet. But is it also possible that fall’s most addictive drama isn’t a TV show at all?
You might find yourself thinking about that question if you, like so many of us at EW, are suddenly obsessed with iTunes’ No. 1 podcast, Serial—a nonfiction series that plays like a prestige cable show, from the makers of This American Life. Rather than reverting to the inverted-triangle structure of most nonfiction reporting, the first season is narrated by Serial‘s main character, executive producer Sarah Koenig, who’s investigating the 1999 murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee—allegedly committed by Hae’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. There are star-crossed lovers from different immigrant backgrounds. There’s a good cop/bad cop duo. There are cliff-hanger endings that hinge on Adnan’s apparent guilt or innocence. At one point, Adnan challenges Koenig to re-create the prosecution’s timeline because, he says, “I’ve seen it before on Dateline or Nightline, where someone tries to reenact the crime, and it’s like, The crime could not have been committed.” Even Adnan views this story as if it’s happening to someone on television.
We caught up with Serial co-creator and executive producer Julie Snyder after finishing episode 8, “The Deal With Jay.”
EW: When Ira Glass introduced Serial in September, he explained on This American Life‘s blog, “Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week…like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.” For you, what makes Serial like a prestige cable drama?
Julie Snyder: In terms of a story, there’s a strong narrative. What I always really love about shows like Breaking Bad is that, even though the storyline is utterly insane, it feels real, because Walt and Jesse and Skyler have complexities, and there are deeper backstories behind their relationships. People are three-dimensional. They surprise you. And you care about what happens to them.
That’s actually what you’re striving for in nonfiction journalism, too, right? You don’t want caricatures. You want people to get across their idiosyncrasies so that it can feel understandable, even if it’s not relatable, why somebody would make the choices that they make. When we talked about doing Serial and focusing on one story over time, instead of doing one story every week, that was really what drew us to it: you feel like you enter into a complete world that really exists. And that’s kind of how you feel when you get into really great TV shows.
Have you been approached about the movie or TV rights? Would you consider selling?
Serial is under the umbrella of This American Life, and that property has agents. There have been people who’ve reached out to the agents for This American Life, but we’re not pursuing anything. It’s hard to say, even hypothetically, [whether we’d consider selling] because I’ve been through the process with This American Life, and it’s hard to understand how something translates outside of a nonfiction radio story. So for that kind of stuff, honestly, it’s like, I’m not gonna deal with that now. I have no time and no interest.
How far into the future are you reporting before the episode airs?
There’s two things going on, in terms of us figuring out how to structure the order of the storytelling. Obviously, it’s a 15-year-old case. Adnan has a life sentence. Nothing is changing. So the only thing new happening is [Serial co-creator and host] Sarah [Koenig]’s investigation. For the most part, we’re going in the order of how the reporting was done. So the things in episode one, that really is the stuff that happened at the beginning [of our investigation].
Sarah had one last story on This American Life in January of this year, and after she finished that, she went full time with Serial. She had done some reporting already on this story, back when Rabia [Chaudry] first reached out last September, but it had been on and off because she was still doing This American Life. So for the most part we’re following that same structure. In these situations, you usually want to get a lot of reporting under your feet before you feel like, These are the questions I want to ask. So we had to do all the reporting about trying to understand what exactly was the state’s case, and then going into the cell phone records and the call logs, and What did the state say? and What does Adnan say?—we had to do that first, so that we had a solid understanding of our questions for Jay. Some stuff we would find out later and fill in the details.
Why haven’t you interviewed Hae’s boyfriend, Don? Even if he has an alibi, wouldn’t he be useful to talk to, because he probably knew Hae better than anyone else at the time she died?
We don’t pursue Don more because Don doesn’t want to talk, and Don’s alibi is solid. He was at work the whole time.
There have been a few references to two trials. So there was a mistrial? Will we hear more about that?
We will talk about that in a few episodes. But I can say, the mistrial is not an explosive reveal.
Jay’s friend Chris says that Jay called him from the pool hall, and his recollection of that day connects Adnan back to the library where Asia already said Adnan was. Does that make you cast doubt on Adnan?
No. Chris never was even questioned by the police. He never testified at trial. This was never under oath. It’s a second-hand story that he heard, and he’s telling us 15 years later. I think it probably is a piece of information that should be taken at the level that we presented it. Just: I know this, and now you know this.
Sarah seems heartbroken when Adnan says that she hardly knows him. Though she’s trying to be objective, do you think she’s actually rooting for his innocence?
“Heartbroken” is a really strong term for how she felt when he said that. I don’t think she was heartbroken. I think she was shocked. It was a reminder that you never really get the full and complete picture, even when you’ve interviewed someone for 30 hours. That’s what he was reminding her of, and rightly so. I don’t think her response had anything to do with personal feelings. I think it had a lot more to do with being told that she didn’t know as much as she thought she knew.
You’ve learned that evidence was thrown out by law enforcement. Will you check into that?
The detectives didn’t want to talk. A lot of times attorneys have to make those inquiries, because you have to write a motion to the court to get evidence released and retested. Having the
[University of Virginia] legal clinic and the Innocence Project on board, they’re much more qualified to do that. We check back in with them later.
Has the subreddit community affected your investigation at all?
The Reddit stuff is overwhelming. I certainly have not read everything on Reddit. I saw an incredible collection of maps that people put together that were really impressive and helpful and time-consuming. But I have not found any information on Reddit that has added to our investigation.
What will next season be about?
We don’t know yet. “Serial” is really just a name of the form—it’s not a show about serial killers. For a while I was saying, “It definitely won’t be another true-crime story,” but how do I know what it definitely won’t be?
Do you get the sense that there’s going to be a resolution to this case by the end of the season?
I don’t know. I’ve had moments in the last year where I thought, “We only have a couple of questions left, but they seem minor.” And then you get a new piece of information and you think, “Oh, God, that’s not minor at all.” There have been times when it’s opened up a whole new alley of new questions. So I really don’t know what we don’t know. But I definitely know that we don’t know everything.
Do you believe Adnan? You said on the air that you believed Jay.
I am the worst person to ask, because I believe everybody. I’m by far the most naive person on the show. I’ve had moments where I’ve said, “I’m 100 percent sure that he’s guilty,” and I’ve also said, “I’m 100 percent sure that he’s innocent,” and now I’ve had to totally eat shit in front of all of my -co-workers! So I’ve just decided to stop doing that.
For more on Serial, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands this Friday.