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|
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.
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
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?"|
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.