Today is Thursday, which means another episode of my favorite new weekly show: “Serial,” a podcast spinoff from public radio institution “This American Life.” The premise of “Serial,” now on its sixth episode, is the examination of a single, true story for twelve episodes, with each installment shedding more and more light on its events and characters, and all told in the distinctive, first-person journalistic style of “This American Life”. More specifically, the podcast’s first season sets itself the challenge of solving a murder.
The subject is the 1999 strangulation of Hae Min Lee, a female high school student who lived in Baltimore County, Maryland. The victim’s ex-boyfriend and fellow high school student, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and has served the last fifteen years in jail, though as “Serial” demonstrates in sometimes frustratingly believable detail, the case against Syed was full of inconsistencies and unfocused details. Host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis are exceedingly scrupulous in their pursuit of a more complete, less ambiguous understanding of the events surrounding Lee’s death than what was aired at Syed’s trial. They make a point to remain skeptical of both the case for Syed’s innocence as well as the case against it. With each episode, Koenig carefully reviews testimony, interviews trial witnesses afresh, even retraces drives and footpaths from fifteen years ago. She presents the findings clearheadedly, without leaping to conclusions. It’s good old-fashioned, gumshoe journalism delivered in a totally gripping, immersive audio package.
The reception to “Serial” has been almost universally positive, and despite it existing as an audio-only program, it’s gained the traction of a high-quality cable drama in that each episode is eagerly anticipated and discussed. In fact, I find that it bears a striking resemblance to HBO’s “True Detective,” which also caught the imagination of its audience. Both follow a single story for a single season, both examine events long in the past, and both revolve around murders of young women.
The difference is not just that “Serial” is based in fact, but also that it goes to enormous lengths to portray those involved in the case as fully fleshed out human beings. “True Detective” received lots of critical praise during its run, but I found it full of absurd and unbelievable characters and a ridiculous amount of phony Acting-with-a-capital-A. Not only that, but without its elaborate production values and unnecessary nudity and gore, what remained of HBO’S show was a wholly unsurprising structure and a lengthy inventory of clichéd plot details. At the end of its first full season, “Serial” will tally roughly the same number of hours as the first season of “True Detective,” and comparing the two will serve as a striking demonstration of how even money, star power and the vividness of television can pale next to extremely thoughtful storytelling.