Serial: The Podcast

Have you guys been listening to Serial? It's this amazing, multi-part, true-crime radio show told -- you guessed it -- serially over a handful of weeks. It's so addictive and fantastic: the intrigue of true crime through the patient, poignant lens of public radio, and I'm super jealous of you if you haven't started it because you get to dig in from the beginning right now.

Sarah Koenig, one of the producers of This American Life, the snob-elite's radio golden child, wanted to tell an unfolding story too big to fit into even one of those full-hour TALs (does anyone else dread those? Occasionally they're worth it, but most of the time I'd prefer three minutes of David Rakoff in the middle somewhere), so she created this show. Along with Julie Snyder, another TAL producer, Serial was born as a sanctioned TAL spinoff that capitalizes on everything we love about podcasts and episodic television.

Koenig, Ira Glass, and Julie Synder: the TAL Dream Team
SO: Serial, at least for this season, is preoccupied with true story of a high school girl who was murdered in 1999; her strangled body was found in Leakin Park, Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan, was convicted of first degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence. The jury heard a simple story of teenage love and jealousy and drugs and sex and hiding from strict immigrant parents. But, like all good crime dramas, there's something rotten in Leakin Park.

I'm not spoiling anything to tell you that you're not going to think Adnan did it, at least not at first. It's inevitable, the way the story unfolds -- the fact that there's a story at all -- that no listener could think this was an open and shut case, that the jury was right, that justice was served. But Serial gets you there in this crazy interesting way, and it's so compelling that I just had to come here and talk to you guys about it.

In the first episode, before revealing any details of the crime that is going to be so thoroughly combed and explored, Sarah Koenig plants this idea: when nothing interesting or notable happens on a certain day, you tend not to remember that day's details.  It's a really basic notion and one that's easily supported, at least anecdotally.  For instance: the day your grandmother died, or the day you started a new job, I bet you remember tons of specifics like where you ate lunch, what you wore, who you were with.  But two weeks ago Thursday -- what did you eat for lunch? Who did you call on the phone? Probably harder to say, even if it's more recent. Likewise -- so the unspoken analogy goes --  you'd probably remember what you wore to kill someone, but if you don't remember what you were wearing on a certain day, you probably didn't kill someone. Right?

This simple theory, this implanted idea, frames the entire story so subtly and perfectly -- and "frames" is a word that comes frequently to the listener's mind as some sketchy characters point suspicious fingers at the alleged killer. This little concept sticks to the back of our minds every time the Adnan, the killer, swears "I don't know" and "I don't remember." If he doesn't remember, we conclude, he couldn't have done it! It doesn't feel like this is a novel suggestion; it feels like a simple fact we've all known and intuited forever. It feels like we came up with it on our own, this notion that Adnan's inability to fill in certain details of his alibi is proof not of his guilt, but of his innocence. This uncomplicated little conceit changes the entire way we listeners approach the story and weigh the evidence.

This idea is so powerful, in fact, that I almost wrote "alleged" killer above.  (I literally did write it and then deleted it and then decided to leave it crossed-out because I think it proves my point of how inside my head this show is.) Of course, Adnan is not an "alleged" murderer; he's a convicted murderer whose appeals were denied. But I -- even me, a Lawyer Who Should Know Better -- instinctively wrote "alleged" because he feels alleged. His conviction feels wrong. It feels so hard like he's not guilty. Because if he were guilty, wouldn't he know exactly what he'd been doing on the day his ex-girlfriend was strangled?

Please understand that this isn't the only confusing, conflicting evidence that brings doubt to your mind about Adnan's conviction.  And please understand even more that Sarah Koenig brings the reliable, detail-seeking, journalistic integrity found on TAL to this show, too, and I'm not suggesting she doesn't. Koenig exposes and discusses evidence that the prosecution and the jury relied on to convict Adnan. She explains countervailing theories and calls attention to pieces of Adnan's story that don't match up with physical evidence and parts of the story he can't explain. She talks a lot on the show about her doubts and balance and truth-seeking.

Did somebody say "cold case?"
But she does it against the backdrop of this idea she planted in the first minutes of the first episode -- this whole concept that the less you remember about a day, the greater the chance is that you didn't do something notable or memorable or traumatizing or life-changing like, say, killing someone that day. Contrary to how the rewards and disparagement of the justice system are meted out, Koenig's court rewards lack of information, lack of detail, lack of knowledge as proof of innocence. And she does it by simply stating something you've probably never thought about but that suddenly seems obvious: you remember the details of memorable days more than other days.

I am not criticizing Koening for doing this. In fact, I respect the hell out of it. I think she and Serial are brilliant and subtle and beautiful. I think the structure of the show, especially the first episodes' little lede, is as important and persuasive as the evidence and the interviews and the commentary themselves. TAL has made its reputation not as a news source or a fact-finder or exposer an entertainer (though it is often those things), but as a storyteller. And that's what Serial does so perfectly: telling this story in a way that feels unbiased but, from its first moments, is already getting you to believe what they want you to believe.

I'm obsessed with Serial. I'm obsessed with its art of persuasion. And, I truly believe that Sarah Koening knows more about this case than any person ever will; she has all the evidence and all the transcripts and all the benefits of hindsight, and she also has what the rest of us don't: her own ability to judge the character of every person she's spoken to with that basic, journalistic gut-instinct. She has an exhaustively-researched theory of this case, a je ne sais quoi intuition about liars and victims, and I wholeheartedly believe that she should absolutely portray this story in a way that best accommodates that theory. Even Koening's doubts -- which she explains and discusses honestly and openly, and which let her stand in for us, the listener, and ask questions on our behalf and guide our answers -- genuinely make us trust her opinions even more. She executes this whole story arc just exquisitely, and it's a joy to listen to it unfold as much for her craftsmanship as for the juicy criminal topic.

So, please go listen to Serial. Binge it. Soak it up. But pay attention in those first, naive, innocent moments to Koenig's appeal to your common sense about remembering details, and try to notice how it shapes your view of the case going forward. It's smart and it's clever, and with subtleties like that, Koenig could get away with murder.
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November 5, 2014 at 1:59 PM delete

I would agree with the sentiment (that it's easier to remember details about days that were important to you), but it's undercut by three simple psychological problems: repression, false memory, and psychopathy.

If the defendant was traumatized by the events in question, they may repress their part in the event altogether, which would then relegate details of the day to the mental trash bin as well.

If the defendant has as many problems with their memory as even interested third-party eyewitnesses have been shown to have, then it's possible those details go away as well.

Finally, if the defendant's psyche is altered to the extent that they find murder unremarkable, it's possible that they would treat that day as any other and forget other details.

These points are also partly why the results of the use of lie detector tests as evidence is controversial: it requires a combination of guilt about the crime and lying, stress-free innocence, and perfect memory to be truly revealing.


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