Listen to Katy Waldman, David Haglund, and Julia Turner discuss the most recent episode of Serial.
Like many people I know, I am addicted to Serial, the podcast from the people behind This American Life that reinvestigates the 15-years-ago murder of a high school girl, Hae Min Lee, and reveals its discoveries one week at a time. (In today’s episode we dig deep into the timeline of the crime. I listened before breakfast.) But for all the plot twists and turns that the show unveils every week, there is one thing I really want to know that I bet will never be revealed: Does reporter Sarah Koenig already know whether she thinks Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend who is in jail for the murder, was wrongly convicted? Or has she genuinely not made up her mind as she’s putting together the episodes?
When asked this question, Koenig has given slippery answers. Mike Pesca asked her on a recent episode of Slate’s podcast The Gist and she wavered, starting with saying she’s 80 percent certain how it ends, then sliding back and forth from 64 percent to 70 percent. Very specific numbers, and nonetheless maddeningly vague! Then she compared the series to a Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which the plot could go in a totally different direction. Finally she hedged: “We know the arc but we don’t know which direction the arc turns, exactly.”
If this were a Serial episode I would play that part of the tape with Koenig offering percentages over and say “Listen to that again. It’s important!”—the same way Koenig does to underline a critical piece of evidence. Why is it important? The genius of this podcast is in how it transforms the relationship between the narrator and the listener. Koenig uses all the conventions we’ve been trained to trust and respond to by TAL host Ira Glass. She speaks in a casual voice and admits her own vulnerabilities. In the first episode, for example, she confesses that she noticed Syed’s “giant brown eyes, like a dairy cow” and thought, “Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend?” Then immediately she caught herself: “Idiotic. I know.” She describes her reactions to conversations immediately after we hear them, like we’re friends waiting in the car to get the download. The listener becomes more like a co-conspirator than a distant observer. We pick up clues at the same time she does, shift our views of the case in tandem with her.
If Koenig has not actually figured out whether she thinks Syed is guilty or innocent, then what she’s doing is a truly radical kind of crime reporting. Exposing yourself to your audience before you’ve fixed your views of a suspected criminal is a scary thing to do. This week I published a feature I wrote about a woman who tried to kill her violent autistic daughter. I spent hours in a small room at the jail interviewing her, and I’m not sure I would want a podcast audience listening to those tapes. It’s not my shifting theories of the crime I’d be worried about; it’s my shifting emotions and loyalties. There are portions of those tapes where I am obviously crying and comforting her. And it’s only when I left that room that air re-entered my brain and I could think more critically about what I’d just heard, and add alternate and opposing voices. It’s all part of the process of crime reporting—but presented on the fly, as it happened, I’m pretty sure it would sound, well, unprofessional.
If Koenig has actually figured out what she thinks then the whole enterprise feels a shade more manipulative, or perhaps artificial. Koenig is withholding information she already knows from the audience to build suspense and hook us in various ways. She is playing the innocent in order to elicit a certain response from her audience. She is leading us through a re-enactment, not a discovery. There’s nothing wrong with that; true crime shows and even books do it routinely. (Although it’s a bit of a wrinkle that Serial leaves us hanging and waiting week after week, always wondering what Koenig knows that we don’t.) It’s definitely effective. But it’s not the authentic experience we think we are having.
My guess is that Koenig has probably tipped in one direction but is disciplining herself to keep an open mind while she’s constructing the episodes, because that makes the whole thing more rewarding. Audio seems to be having its New Journalism moment, where the distant authoritative narrator is being replaced by an emotional, sometimes neurotic, even unreliable voice. Radiolab has done this for a while, and now there are dozens more: StartUp, Strangers, Love + Radio, an upcoming show by my friend and TAL alum Alix Spiegel called Invisibilia. Just like New Journalism in its early days, the shows are sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating and self indulgent, but always exciting and fun.
Serial has been compared to True Detective or The Sopranos, but it can never be either of them because fiction allows the author some certainty. You can start from the last episode and build backward. But true crime can get more true and more shaky at the same time. William Finnegan’s 1994 reinvestigation of a crime in The New Yorker uncovered plenty of critical evidence, but wound up no closer to the truth. Truman Capote, the grandfather of the genre, described In Cold Blood as “immaculately factual” but an Esquire writer who re-reported the story concluded that the book was more like a “work of art.” “Don’t let this be a contemplation on the nature of the truth,” Pesca begged Koenig on his show, worrying that the ending would not offer resolution. But I wouldn’t mind that. Think of what a letdown the end of True Detective turned out to be. If Serial can convince us of anything, it’s that even if we have to be tricked into it, the wandering of an investigation can be just as satisfying as the smoking gun.