Serial is a cultural phenomenon. It's likely the most popular podcast of all time, and it deserves every inch of its success. The show follows the story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. No stone is left unturned by host Sarah Koenig in her effort to figure out if Adnan's conviction was justified.
This Thursday is the season one finale of Serial, which will presumably wrap up the storyline we've been following for these past months in a not-so-neat bow and leave us to ponder it over our holiday hot cocoa. In celebration / observance of this momentous event, Liz Furze (Community Manager), Katya Dreyer-Oren (Office Manager), and I have each picked our favorite episode and attempted to explain our fascination.
We just want to talk about it, not spoil it for you, so if you haven't tried Serial yet you might want to stop reading right now, find a pair of headphones, and start playing catch up.
Katya - Episode 4
I love crime shows. I love the puzzle game aspect of it all — finding clues and evidence, piecing it together, and moving the proverbial game pieces around the board until everything comes together in one grand finale.
I'm also a skeptic. It is difficult to be a skeptic who loves crime shows. It's a lot more enjoyable to watch Benson and Stabler, Castle and Beckett, and Rizzoli and Isles find the perfect clue at the perfect time than it is to be a real detective searching through the proverbial haystack that is actual crime.
When I was 19 years old I was empaneled on a jury for a violent crime. I was struck by how different and similar the trial was compared with the trials I'd seen on my beloved Law and Order SVU. The lawyers tried to bring as much drama to the courtroom as they could, but ultimately, the evidence in a violent crime is often not much more interesting or compelling than in any other. What surprised me most of all was how we, as the jury, were required to rely not on physical evidence but on witness testimony.
The case of Adnan Syed relies almost entirely on the testimony of Jay, who claims that he was the one that Adnan called after Adnan murdered Hae, to help him bury the body and remove evidence. The police are, of course, thrilled to have someone who seems to know the timeline of the crime, details of the crime, and specifics of the criminal. However, Jay's story is inconsistent. From his first interview until his trial testimony, his story changes in big and small ways until whole details are altered or removed.
One is left to wonder if Jay is lying — it is notoriously difficult to keep a lie straight, especially a lie with as many moving parts as Jay's story. However, human memory is also surprisingly malleable, and can change (actually change) just on the power of suggestion. This is the reason witnesses are shown a photo array and asked "did one of these people do it?" rather than shown just one photo of a suspect, because being shown one photo can actually change their memory of the event.
When I was a juror, I found some of the lawyers' lines of questioning ridiculous. The alleged crime had occurred at a pretty wild party 18 months prior to the trial, and the lawyers were constantly questioning the reliability of the witnesses like this:
LAWYER: Were there beer bottles on the floor?
L: How many beer bottles were on the floor?
W: Some? A lot? Maybe 15?
L: So there were 15 beer bottles on the floor?
W: Maybe? I don't really remember.
L: So you don't remember what happened that night?
W: Well, just not how many beer bottles were on the floor...
L: You just told me you didn't remember.
Calling into question witness reliability based on erroneous information is silly to me. I don't remember what I ate for breakfast last week, much less how many beer bottles were on the floor at a party I went to a year and a half ago. But this doesn't mean that I wouldn't remember the important details of the event. What frustrates me about the case against Adnan, and producer Sarah Koenig as well, is that the detectives seemed to understand that Jay's story had these inconsistencies (and it is indeed hard to repeat the same story over and over without certain inconsistencies), but they didn't seem to follow that lead anywhere. They seemed to be satisfied to accept that sometimes a witness is lying, and sometimes, a witness just doesn't remember.
Being a skeptic who loves crime stories can be frustrating, and Serial is perfect for me.
Paul - Episode 5
Like Katya, I too have sat on a jury. During the selection process, the prosecuting attorney asked me if I was aware that a real trial was nothing like the detective novel I was holding in my hand. I said I was. Still, it's a little disappointing that real life crimes aren't usually solved with a single "gotcha" or inconsistency in someone's story.
In Episode 5, Sarah Koenig and her friend Dana Chivvis set out to confirm or disprove the odd, ever-changing story Jay tells in Episode 4. I've seen fictional detectives do this: follow up a story told by a witness with a late night fact finding mission that blows the whole case open. Sarah and Dana actually drive the route Jay describes in his testimony, attempting to match the timing and order of his story with the cell tower records. They find some serious problems, maybe even impossibilities, in Jay's story. But it doesn't blow the whole case open, because they also managed to confirm the most important elements of the timeline.
This is all absurdly frustrating, as Katya points out. And yet, it's utterly fascinating as well. Joining Sarah and Dana on their journey, hearing them express their biases, hearing them disappointed to not be able to disprove Jay entirely... it feels real. Seldom do you get this close to journalism.
That's why Serial can be a satisfying experience, even as it seems to never even approach certainty about the case it's examining. It's a relentless search for the truth, and an exhaustive look at every facet of the people who may or may not be hiding the truth. Serial might seem pessimistic about our ability to know, but it's relentlessly optimistic about our ability to search.
Liz - Episode 8
In Episode 8, we finally hear more about Jay, the sort of “star witness” in the case against Adnan. I had been waiting for this episode for a while — I think upon finishing about half of the first seven installments, I yelled, “But there has to be something else going on with Jay!” He seemed to be the fulcrum upon which the case was hinged. Episode 8 proves that there’s even more going on with Jay than I initially thought, but the episode ends up bringing about more questions than it does resolutions.
The entire series periodically calls into question how we judge people through identity, outward appearance, and race, and this episode throws that idea into a particularly stark spotlight. It also offers a bit of commentary on the meaning of fact and truth in a legal environment and how much the whole legal process is tinged by factors that have very little to do with actual evidence at all.
Jay presents some testimony that doesn’t add up, but the even bigger focus is on the parts of Jay’s personality and appearance that don’t add up either. Narrator Sarah Koenig at one point even expresses her astonishment that Jay “played lacrosse, for Christ’s sake.” He’s at once presented as a nice kid, a good friend, and a lover of animals but also a compulsive liar, someone who can’t really be trusted. He listens to Rage Against the Machine and dyes his hair blonde, inspiring comparisons to Dennis Rodman. It paints a picture of him as an outsider or a weirdo. Then, at one point in the episode, an audio clip of defense lawyer Cristina Gutierrez practically screaming her interrogation at Jay in the courtroom plays, and the discomfort I felt at this point in the episode pales in comparison to what I can only imagine the jury felt at the time.
Ultimately I love this episode because it’s not just about the story according to Jay; it's a presentation of the testimony that Jay offers up that calls to attention potential bias in a meaningful way.
Serial is one of those unlikely phenomenons that brings people together over an even more unlikely medium—the podcast. No matter what your favorite episode, though, I think we can all agree upon one thing: listening to that one girl pronounce MailChimp incorrectly at the beginning of every episode is the best part, so we’ll leave you with this fan-created MailKimp remix. Happy listening.