I finally listened to the last episode of Serial this week. I was waiting to complete the season before commenting on it, but I didn’t need to. The finale was as shot-through with doubts and second-guessing as all the other episodes, so it ended without really concluding. And that’s appropriate. If there was one over-arching theme to the series, it was just how murky and ambiguous the pursuit of truth, and human relations more broadly, can be.
I don’t have a lot to add to all the other discussions about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed, or who might have killed Hae Min Lee. Smarter commentators than I can do that. But do have some thoughts about Serial as a work of journalism.
1, It helps to have help. This may be obvious, but it took a tremendous amount of work to produce the show, and far more resources were devoted to it than to most investigations. It’s hard to count but alongside Sarah Koenig, there seemed to be at least two full-time producers helping her with reporting for most of a year. She also pulled in a team of lawyers and paralegals from an innocence project in Virginia. Even the most ambitious stories at New York Times or the Wall Street Journal rarely get that level of attention. Some of the work was necessary – reading the court documents, contacting prospective sources, walking the crime scene – and some of it went above and beyond. Checking the architectural plans of the Best Buy to establish whether it had a phone booth in 1999, for example. When they searched for an AT&T customer service contract from that era – to establish if an accidental cell call would show up on a bill – and found one in the court documents of a class action lawsuit, I thought, now you’re just showing off.
2, Koenig and her team got lucky. Granted, luck is the residue of design, and we don’t know how many dry wells they sank before arriving at the gusher that was Adnan Syed. But in ways large and small, they benefitted from really rich source material.
Consider the problem of Lee. Any journalist telling the story of a murder would want to convey a sense of the victim. In Lee’s case, her family wouldn’t participate, and few of her friends spoke for her. But Koenig didn’t need them to because she had something better: Lee’s diary. And not just a diary, but a seemingly totally candid, emotional account of her relationships with Adnan and her new boyfriend, Don. Short of some actual recording of Lee confiding her innermost romantic desires, it’s hard to imagine a better vehicle to capture her voice. How many teenagers kept diaries in 1999? Ten percent? Fewer? That’s just lucky.
There are lots of instances where the people in the story, major or incidental, are far more interesting or colorful that the reporters had a right to expect. Syed’s lawyer wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill incompetent attorney, but brilliant defender with a foghorn voice who flamed out in spectacular fashion. The guy who found Lee’s body wasn’t just a school janitor, but also a convicted streaker. Jay Wilds, whose testimony convicted Syed, had surprising depth of character for a petty drug dealer. None of these characters would have salvaged Serial if Syed wasn’t so articulate, thoughtful and charismatic, but they all helped the story telling.
3, Format matters. Telling the story over several months meant it changed as new evidence and sources materialized. That both helped and hindered Serial. Some developments that seemed critical early in the narrative – the Asia McClain letter that offered a potential alibi for Syed (and supported the argument of an incompetent defense) – fade in importance as Koenig chases other, more promising ideas, such as the discrepancies between the cell-phone towers and Jay’s description of events. Instead of each episode building in importance, the earlier ones just seem irrelevant.
It also meant important voices absent from the beginning didn’t surface until the show began to air. Don, Lee’s boyfriend, is an enigma when first introduced; he’s in his early 20s, but dating a high school student. He seems at best a loser, and at worst creepy and possibly suspicious. But when we finally hear from him in the final episode, he sounds thoughtful and genuinely distressed about Lee’s death, 15 years later. Don’s belated appearance made Serial stronger – and perhaps he only would have emerged once the show became a phenomenon.
Telling a story episodically is completely different that most long-form journalism, certainly from the sort I practice. Most conventional articles present their strongest evidence early on, then elaborate on it as they go. In print, you never want to take your reader’s attention span for granted; there’s no guarantee they’ll make it to the end, so you make sure they know what your story is about early on. Broadcast is different – think of how sports highlights wait for the end to tell you the score, instead of at the beginning like a newspaper account – and Serial, a broadcast spread over weeks, was radically different. Each episode whet our appetite for more, building toward a climax. And ultimately, that’s where the format may have hurt Serial. Because – to its credit – there was no climax, no big reveal at the end. Rather than appreciating Serial for what it was, critics and observers were frustrated it was tied up like an episode of Law & Order. We’re habituated to thinking that all stories work that way. But that real life is rarely that entertaining.