Saturday, December 6, 2014

Drama On The Installment Plan

I’ve been listening this week to the podcast Serial.

Lauded as a The Next Big Thing in a recent NYT article, Serial, from the producers of Public Radio’s This American Life, is a collection of podcasts chronicling a present-day investigation by the podcast team of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American high school girl from Baltimore. She disappeared after school one day and her body was later found in a shallow grave in a remote park outside Baltimore. She had been strangled. Lee’s former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged and convicted of the murder and is currently serving a life sentence in a Maryland state prison. The podcast team, led by host and co-producer Sarah Koenig, goes back through all the materials and transcripts and they conduct extensive interviews with friends and relatives and associates of the people involved, including extensive phone interviews of Syed himself. (Syed has never wavered from his claim that he had nothing to do with Lee’s murder.)

I’m unclear what motivated Koenig (or whosever idea Serial was) to dig into this presumably solved case, but it makes for strangely compelling listening. This is, of course, why the Times article singled it out (along with the growing popularity of audiobooks and The Starling Project, an Audible-sponsored full-cast “audio novel” by author Jeffery Deaver), and maybe that fact alone is Serial’s raison d’etre. Part police procedural, part whodunit, part character study, Serial covers the case in chapters of varying lengths, each focusing on one aspect of the case and constituting an individual podcast: general overview; the nature of the relationship between Lee and Syed; the unfolding of the murder events; the State’s case against Syed; the holes in the case, etc. These things are written and produced more or less as the investigation proceeds, so that we as listeners are essentially making the discoveries along with the producers. Syed may be exonerated (and his conviction overturned, presumably) or his guilt may be confirmed in a more convincing fashion, or perhaps some other option (?); but we’ll take the journey together, as it were

I’m just over halfway through the series (10 of the planned 12 podcasts are available), but I see already that Series will continue into a second season, though with a different story. This template can be applied to a large number of previous investigations.

I’m quite sucked in, but the concept does raise some concerns. First, why this murder and why now? Partly, it seems they found the “right” case for the format, both in its overview and because of the characters involved. As I say, it’s a compelling story. But making a radio drama because a particular case seems properly lurid or has the right characters or is otherwise suitable for radio seems inherently problematic. They’re not just telling a story; they’re potentially changing an outcome. Do the producers seek to exonerate the accused / convicted? (It kinda seems so.) If so, why? And is it the place of a radio show to do this? While host Koenig doesn’t overtly pull for Syed, it does seem like she’s seeking actively to find the flaws in the State’s case and in how that case was prosecuted. Syed himself—in a detail that seems seminal to this whole undertaking—is articulate and unflappable, but a little difficult to pin down: smooth-talking, seemingly very disarming and self-effacing, he has the hyper-awareness of psychological details and motivations that one sees with those who have spent years in therapy. He knows every objection to every detail of his case, as perhaps befits having had 15 years in prison to think about it. He’s an intriguing centerpiece. But is this case more in need of ironing out than other cases which might not have made for good radio play?

It also seems problematic that the team’s “investigation” essentially seeks to duplicate much of our police and legal processes. The implication is that the police and legal procedures are not adequate and we can do better. And maybe they can. But I can see there might be resistance to a gang of amateurs going over, very publicly and with a fine-toothed comb, the work of a group of professionals—from police to detectives to forensic people to judges and lawyers. We might expect these people to be less-than eager to have their work questioned, and not surprisingly neither of the two detectives on the case nor any of the attorneys involved agreed to be interviewed for the story. (FWIW, at this point they have not uncovered any evident malfeasance or incompetence on anyone’s part.) One of the two detectives did state off the record about Syed, “He’s the guy. Without question he’s the guy.”

Host Sarah Koenig (L) and producer Dana Chivvis.

The whole enterprise feels like it’s playing with fire, which I suppose is part of its allure. The investigation bubbles along with the background assumption that something new may be uncovered or some mistake revealed. The status quo—Syed in jail—may be overturned. But there is also the possibility, throbbing constantly in the background like a dull headache, that Syed for all his charms and self-deprecation is a player of the first order and is hoodwinking the podcast team. The team are aware of this, of course, and they talk about it. This prospect of helping to free someone who might be a monster gives moment to the whole undertaking. Serial is an entertainment that plays with people’s lives and their peace of mind.

I’ve never been a regular listener of This American Life. It's a bit too self-consciously quirky for my taste, too much an exercise in style. I especially rankle at their use of music. It’s like they have a special CD of slinky lounge music that is used for all transitions. Serial sounds very much like TAM—-the first Serial episode was played as a segment on TAM. And their use of a "theme song" is a bit grating. But that's small potatoes. Koenig is great as a host; she has a winning, candid manner and a voice for radio, and it’s all very well written. The little glimpses behind the production scene—recorded conversations between producers in the car, for example, or Koenig’s recorded phone interviews—give Serial a documentary feel. 

Loving crime fiction as I do, this foray into crime non-fiction is welcome. I'm intrigued to see how the season winds up, and what they come up with next.

Stay tuned.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

I love "This American Life" (the music is odd though) and I love listening to stories on the radio. I can't wait to listen to this over Christmas break. Thanks for the review!

William Stachour said...

Yeah, I'm *quite* sucked in at this point!

You'll have to let me know what you think when you hear it. If you love TAM, you may fall even harder for this :-)