The Idiot’s Guide To This American Life’s Serial



photo-13BY MOLLY KASSEL Serial, the wildly popular podcast reported and narrated by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig, re-examines the 1999 strangulation murder of a Baltimore high school student named Hae Min Lee, whose lifeless body was discovered in a nearby park six weeks after she went missing. Serial is structured like a whodunnit and the listener is invited to play detective alongside Koenig, which is a big part of its charm. Though it retells a crime that happened 15 years ago, listeners feel like they are learning the facts in real time as Koenig uncovers them.  Another part of  Serial‘s considerable charm is its authenticity. We like Law and Order,  but something about Serial feels more real — because it is real. Plus it’s relatable, we all know people just like the people involved in the case.

The day Hae Min Lee went missing the police interviewed her family, friends, boyfriend, and ex-boyfriend Adnan. The story cops chose to believe was that of 19-year-old Jay, a Serial LOGODennis Rodman-esque character — tall, attractive, and a little slippery — who was both Adnan’s friend and weed dealer. Jay told police that Hae was murdered by Adnan, who is currently serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison in Maryland.

Jay’s friends sing his praises, but some point out that he has been known to have a casual relationship with the truth.  His friend Cathy says Jay is a compulsive liar, yet she believes him when he says Adnan is the killer.  Jay’s account of the murder is confusing and prone to change over the course of repeated tellings but it goes like this: On Wednesday, January 13th 1999, Jay and Adnan ditched school and went to the mall. Afterward, Jay dropped Adnan back at school and borrowed Adnan’s new cell phone. Adnan called Jay later from a pay phone and asked Jay to meet him in a Best Buy parking lot. When Jay arrived Adnan showed him Hae’s body in the trunk of her car. The two friends then run errands, see friends, smoke weed, and, eventually, Adnan buries Hae.

Adnan adamantly denies Jay’s story but he has no alibi. He claims he does not remember where he was for the pivotal 22 minutes when Hae was killed. Hardly anyone interviewed in the Serial LOGOSerial LOGOSerial, this much is certain: Some or all of the key players are lying, or at the very least, not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Jay sticks to his changing story, Adnan sticks to his no-alibi alibi, and Adnan’s friend/Jay’s girlfriend Stephanie refused to talk to police at the time of the murder and continues to maintain her silence, other than to say she trusts Jay.  Each week the state’s case against Adnan gets weaker and weaker. Even so, Adnan’s innocence doesn’t get any more believable.

Also in episode nine, Adnan talks about his time in prison. He is a devout Muslim, works as a prison chef, is well-liked by his fellow inmates and is surprisingly not bitter about the whole situation.  He refuses to feel sorry for himself and tells Koenig, “I have a life.” It may not be the life he imagined but he nevertheless he insists that it’s still a life that’s better than many.

Sometimes I feel like Serial has become too popular for its own good and in the process it has exhausted my empathy. I find myself listening to it as entertainment instead of tragedy. Slate recently tweeted, “As Serial has progressed, it has become less obvious what exactly the podcast is about.” I agree.  It becomes less fun the more we learn because the more we learn, the more we doubt.  The thing is, this podcast — or more accurately, this murder case – wasn’t intended to be satisfying entertainment.  It’s real life and death. Real people lead messy lives that rarely have satisfying narrative arcs or happy endings. Serial is no exception.