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Damn the Dishes

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Serial is the world’s most popular podcast. It reached the five million download mark on iTunes in record time. It’s a spin-off from This American Life, which has been a staple of American public radio since the mid-1990s. Serial first aired as an episode of TAL in October, but now has its own home online. TAL is what you turn on when you’re doing the dishes. Serial demands to be listened to, then listened to again, compulsively, ritualistically; damn the dishes.

Co-produced and narrated by Sarah Koenig, a TAL producer, Serial tells a single non-fiction story in weekly episodes. In the first season, the story is about Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore in 1999, when they were both 17. Adnan has always insisted on his innocence. The motive ascribed to him by the state prosecutors – that the jilted teenager strangled Hae to preserve his honour – is unconvincing as well as racist (Adnan is of Pakistani origin). As Koenig shows, the prosecution’s timeline for the murder, based on its star witness Jay (the ‘Dennis Rodman of Woodlawn High School’), charts an implausible course. And Adnan’s lawyer, who was later disbarred and died soon afterwards, seems to have suffered a meltdown during the trial that caused her to botch the defence. There were ‘mountains of reasonable doubt’, a legal expert tells Koenig in episode 7. But if Adnan didn’t do it, who did, and how?

Serial is painstakingly precise with detail: mobile phone records, the geography of Woodlawn High School, the layout of the Best Buy store, what Adnan likes to cook in jail, Hae’s favourite song (K-Ci and JoJo’s ‘All My Life’). Koenig has spent a year researching the case; she has talked for hours on the phone with Adnan (we hear snippets throughout), pored over police notes and trial transcripts, and hunted down even the most peripheral witnesses to ask what they can recall from 15 years ago (usually not much). Each episode focuses on a different aspect of the case – the state’s timeline; the inconsistencies in Jay’s testimony; the discovery of Hae’s body – as Koenig lays out new evidence and sifts its interpretative possibilities. She wants to believe Adnan, but worries he might be a psychopath; just when she thinks she’s proved it can’t be him, she remembers an incriminating detail.

There is something both intoxicating and irritating about Koenig’s wide-eyed pursuit of the truth, nicely skewered in some of the many parodies. Serial has also been a boon to amateur detectives. Reddit has a subreddit devoted to the podcast, with more than half a million visitors in November alone. There are countless threads: on competing theories of the crime, uncovered trial documents, contemporary news articles, analysis of the crime scene, the ethics of Serial, the ethics of the subreddit itself. It’s a glutted map of the roads the podcast doesn’t take, or might take yet: ‘Did Hae smoke?’; ‘The neighbour boy: too many coincidences?’; ‘The importance of the phantom phonebooth’; ‘Why the rocks on the body?’

Some of the key players in the story are active on the subreddit, including Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Adnan’s family who put Koenig onto the case. (Chaudry, an immigration lawyer, runs a website dedicated to trying to prove Adnan’s innocence, though she promises ‘no spoilers’.) Hae’s brother asked on the subreddit for listeners to stop treating the murder of his sister as entertainment. There’s reason to be queasy. Not only are these ‘real people’, as the subreddit moderators remind its readers, but Koenig and her millions of listeners know far more about Adnan’s case than his lawyer ever did. The best defence turns out to be a viral podcast.

Koenig has made explicit reference to the world of Serial outside the podcast only twice: once to say that a friend of Hae’s had contacted her to say she was with Hae at the supposed time of her murder; the second time to clarify widely circulated news that Adnan’s case is coming up for appeal. (His original appeal was denied; this is a collateral appeal based solely on the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The decision will be out in January.) But for the most part, Serial is sealed off from the cult it has inspired. Listeners who refuse to engage with the Serial metatext call themselves ‘Serial purists’.

Koenig insists that she’s doing nothing new. The seriality of Serial, she says, is as old as Dickens. And as the insistent comparisons with In Cold Blood remind us, there’s nothing new about true crime either. Koenig is much firmer with the facts than Capote, but the same questions are raised about narrative construction: there’s a finite set of evidence here, and many different stories could be made of it. Koenig chooses when to give us which bits, and how to frame them. Is the note about Hae with the words ‘I’m going to kill’ on it just a bit of playful teenage marginalia, as Koenig suggests, or evidence of Adnan’s guilt?

And yet, for all its resemblance to well-worn forms, Serial is new. It is a conventional story told without the protective apparatus of conventional storytelling. Koenig more or less shares the evidence as it unfolds before her. For all her narrative control, all her dexterous weaving (the Slate meta-podcast calls Koenig ‘so fucking wily’), she is tightrope walking without a net. Because she can’t be sure where she is going to end up, she doesn’t know which details are important and which are not. And yet it’s hard not to read the narrative like any other story; hard not to think that the ‘going to kill’ note must be a red herring.

It’s hard not to hope, too, that Serial will provide narrative resolution. The last episode airs on 18 December. Many listeners will want to find out if Adnan did it. The promise of resolution is inscribed in Serial. But as the episodes unfold, and fewer new details are revealed, there’s a creeping sense that it can’t make good on it. Interviewing Koenig, the Slate writer Mike Pesca pleaded: ‘Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.’ Listeners want a straight story. Is that too much to ask?

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