Last week on the Serial Spoiler Special, we asked listeners to suggest books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts that fans of Serial might enjoy. With Season 1 set to end next week, we figured it was a good time to start looking.
And we got a lot of great suggestions. We discuss a few of them on this week’s episode of the Spoiler Special, which will go up this evening. In the meantime, here are all the things our listeners recommended, plus suggestions from me, my Spoiler Special co-host Katy Waldman, and from our guest on this week’s episode, Grantland film critic Wesley Morris.
Murder on a Sunday Morning
The producers of Serial have themselves mentioned The Staircase, a 2004 miniseries about the murder of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband for the crime, as one of the things they looked to as they were figuring out how to tell the story of Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. But before the director of The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, made that miniseries, he made Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2002. Several listeners suggested the movie, which focuses on the trial of Brenton Butler, who was just 15 when he was tried for the murder of two tourists in Florida. A listener named Roni calls particular attention to the “smarter than a whip public defender who stops at nothing to get to the truth and does not hide his obvious disdain for the cops in the case nor his love for Chablis and nicotine. Totally spellbinding,” Roni adds.
Paradise Lost and Its Sequels
Many listeners also recommended the three documentary features about the so-called West Memphis Three, teenagers who were convicted of the murders of three young boys—and who, in between the release of the second and third films, were finally set free.* “It’s not like Serial or The Staircase in that it’s not really much of a ‘whodunit,’ ” a listener named Isabel writes, “but it does an excellent job of bringing you into the lives of the people involved in this tragedy and explaining how a community could get something like this so wrong.” Listener Laura, who watched the first two movies when they were released and then followed the exoneration in the news, adds, “I absolutely cried my eyes out watching that press conference. And was fascinated again when Paradise Lost 3 was released.”
Evolution of a Criminal
A listener named Hillary recommended this new documentary, which will air on PBS’s Independent Lens in January. Hillary saw the film as part of the Hot Docs series in Toronto. “It’s the story of how a smart, 16-year-old boy from a loving family becomes a bank robber. Darius Clark Monroe was inspired after watching an episode of America’s Most Wanted featuring a robbery at a local branch. He enlists the help of two friends and calls in a bomb threat at another school to keep police distracted. No one would think that this kid could be capable of committing this crime, but he did it.” Monroe, by the way, is also the director of the movie. When Hillary saw it in Toronto, Monroe was there for a Q&A. “He still gives off the impression of someone unlikely to commit a felony,” Hillary writes.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
Another film currently on the festival circuit is Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. A listener named Kurt recommends seeing it when you can—and, in the meantime, reading the book of the same name that it’s based on, by Poe Ballantine. It’s a memoir set in Chadron, Neb., and it addresses “the murder (or suicide) of the local State College’s math professor under extremely odd circumstances. Everyone has theories, and nobody has answers, and the town,” Kurt says, is “very Twin Peaks-y in its characters, locales,” and the “strange idiosyncrasies of many parties.” Kurt, who has written about the film, calls the book “an elegant, down-to-earth piece of writing that is always full of surprises, humor, and curiosity.”
Criminal and Stuff You Should Know
These are two podcasts that Serial fans should check out, on the suggestion of a listener named Josh. The earlier episodes of Criminal, Josh writes, cover homicide cases—including, it’s worth noting, the Peterson case that feature in The Staircase—but “they’re starting to branch out into other high-stakes crimes,” Josh says, noting that it is “very well written and produced and part of the high quality Radiotopia Podcast network.” As for Stuff You Should Know, Josh points out that several episodes touch on issues that are relevant to Serial, including “How Police Interrogation Works” and “How the Innocence Project Works.”
“The Strongest Man in the World”
Listener Stephen recommends Davy Rothbart’s piece “The Strongest Man in the World,” published in Rothbart’s essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot. “It’s a really well done essay,” Stephen says, “about the case of a guy named Byron Case. After reading it, I got sucked into a hole of courtroom transcripts, etc., just because it was such a compelling story. I have lots of questions about the case at the center of Serial,” Stephen says, “but still I feel pretty strongly that Adnan is probably guilty. For me, the story at the center of ‘The Strongest Man in the World’ is much more open-ended.”
Homicide: Life on the Streets
We mentioned The Wire on the Spoiler Special, but a listener named Allison suggested an earlier TV series loosely based on David Simon’s first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. “It’s not hard to imagine this exact crime,” Allison writes, “as a basis for one of the episodes.” She continues: “The Baltimore and criminal procedure elements are obviously similar, but what strikes me even more is how the same story looked at from different angles yield different perceptions. Within the confines of a single episode, you decide that Lt. Frank Pembleton is a jerk, a saint, inflexible, malleable, clever, dogmatic. Nobody is spared this treatment—everyone is under scrutiny. And while there are a few tired stereotypes, the truth is always complicated and messy. Sound familiar?”
Our guest on this week’s Spoiler Special, Wesley Morris, recommends this 2009 documentary, which is named after a purported “escaped mental patient who lived in the old abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution” on Staten Island, and who, according to local legend, “would come out late at night and snatch children off the streets.” The two filmmakers had always assumed it was an urban legend, but in 1987 a girl with Down syndrome disappeared, and the true story behind her disappearance echoed the legends they’d heard as children.
Katy Waldman explains that when she first saw all the recommendations for Paradise Lost, she wondered why so many listeners were suggesting John Milton’s epic poem. That got her thinking about parallels between the poem and Serial, which eventually prompted the realization that another epic poem, Dante’s The Inferno, would make for great post-Serial reading. It’s all about sin and crime and punishment and the judgments that we make about people, and it is narrated by an outsider who must, Sarah Koenig-like, talk to many people as he makes his way through unfamiliar territory.
The Journalist and the Murderer
My own suggestion is this 1990 classic by Janet Malcolm, which begins with the unforgettable remark: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The rest of the book is about the relationship between Joe McGinnis, the author of Fatal Vision, and Jeffrey R. MacDonald, the subject of Fatal Vision. That book is about MacDonald’s trial and conviction for murder, a conviction that McGinnis, the book makes clear, totally agrees with—an agreement that caught MacDonald, who gave McGinnis incredible access to both himself and his defense team, off guard, to say the least. MacDonald sued McGinnis, and the case was eventually settled out of court. That suit is the set-up for Malcolm’s book.
Need more? Below are the rest of the feature films, documentaries, and TV shows that our listeners recommended. If you’ve already seen or read or listened to everything above, maybe you’ll find something here:
In Cold Blood
Capturing the Friedmans
The First 48
The Thin Blue Line
Into the Abyss
In Prison My Whole Life
12 Angry Men
Top of the Lake
* Correction, Dec. 15, 2014: This post originally misstated that the West Memphis Three were exonerated. Though they were released from prison, their convictions were not overturned. They continue to seek full exoneration.