Like a lot of you, I imagine, my ongoing crime story obsession this fall comes not from TV, but from a podcast: “Serial,” a “This American Life” spin-off where reporter Sarah Koenig looks into a 15-year-old Baltimore murder case in which teenager Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
“Serial” has become the podcast that launched a thousand think pieces – as well as a second podcast at Slate devoted to analyzing each “Serial” episode. The podcast’s fans can’t stop discussing the holes in the prosecution’s case, whether Adnan is trying to pull an Ed Norton in “Primal Fear” on Sarah (a notion she wisely addressed in last week’s episode) and, most importantly, whether the show is going to actually “solve” the case (even if that means confirming Adnan’s guilt) – and, if not, how it’s going to end.
It’s that last part that’s going to be the sticking point, I fear – from the audience’s point of view, but not from the show’s. “Serial” has some of the trappings of fictional crime stories – and specifically this longform narrative take on it, which we’ll get back to in a minute – but it’s a documentary about a real case involving a real murder. And real life is messier than almost all fiction.
The chances of unearthing new evidence or a new confession that either affirms or definitively disproves the state’s case all these years later almost certainly won’t happen. Adnan isn’t going to suddenly admit that he’s been playing Sarah all this time. Today’s episode (spoilers, in case you haven’t listened yet) features an encounter between Sarah, producer Julie Snyder, and key prosecution witness Jay. In a fictionalized version of this story, Koenig and Snyder might interrogate Jay until he confessed to having committed the murder himself; here, they have a 20 minute (unrecorded) conversation in which he sticks firmly to his story and leaves his interviewers more confused than ever about their main subject.
Koenig has done many interviews over the past few weeks in which she’s insisted that she had no road map for the show or the story going in – it’s not even clear at this point how many episodes this first season will run – and that the plan is the same as it always is on “This American Life”: follow the story and find the best way to tell it, regardless of how it ends. But though “This American Life” has told stories that span long periods of time (a year in the life at a Chicago high school, the lifetimes of two women who were switched at birth), they’re always told within the confines of that hour of radio/podcasting, and often in only a portion of that hour. When Ira Glass gets to the end of a story where the truth (or emotional truth) remains ambiguous, the audience doesn’t seem bothered by it, because it was a short story well-told.
The ongoing nature of the story that gives “Serial” its title means the podcast takes on different airs and listener expectations than was perhaps intended. This is a true story, and it’s not just about whether Adnan did it, but questions of how memories change over time, about the legal process, and about how little it is possible to understand even of something that is true. But the fact that we follow the story in pieces week after week can make “Serial” feel more like one of the dozens of serialized TV mysteries of recent years, and can create in some listeners the expectation that there will be – must be – a satisfying conclusion at the end of this story.
There has been pressure on so many of these TV shows – from something relatively short like the 8 hours of “True Detective” to something long like the 6 seasons of “Lost” – to stick the landing, and a belief that any show that doesn’t offer an ending that is both definitive and satisfying has, in retrospect, been a total failure. See the “True Detective” backlash over that show’s divisive finale, or see Damon Lindelof’s retirement from Twitter after one too many “You owe me six years of my life, a-hole!” tweets.
Unless the Innocence Project lawyers who got involved in the case last week are able to make some miraculous discoveries that Koenig and Snyder couldn’t, I’m not expecting “Serial” to conclude with Adnan’s tearful release from prison(*). But I think even more than a lot of these TV shows, “Serial” has been very upfront about this being about the journey and not the destination. This story came across Koenig’s desk, and she decided to find out what she could about it. And she’s presenting that to us in a riveting manner. Like “Breaking Bad,” it’s demonstrating just how interesting process can be when you really get into the little details, like Koenig and Snyder driving around Baltimore trying to see if the timeline presented in Jay’s account of the crime was possible.
(*) Though if it did, I would love for the second season to be the “Serial” take on “Rectify.” I don’t know exactly how a podcast would capture Adnan staring at a wall of flip-flops, but these are smart people; they’ll figure it out.
Perhaps because both series are set in Baltimore and involve drilling down deep into the nature of a murder investigation, the TV show I often find myself comparing “Serial” to most isn’t one of these millennial cable dramas, but NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.” That was a fictional show that often had the air of documentary – many of the characters and stories were taken from David Simon’s non-fiction book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” – and that wasn’t afraid to end its stories with the idea that the detectives and the audience wouldn’t get satisfying closure to a particular case. I often find myself thinking of “Homicide” when “Serial” presents recordings from police interrogations, or when Koenig offers a bit of philosophy about the criminal justice system. (A line in today’s episode about how often people lie in court reminded me of one of my favorite “Homicide” quotes: “Murderers lie cuz they got to, witnesses lie cuz they think they got to, and everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it.”)
The first big “Homicide” story arc involved the murder of a little girl named Adena Watson, the first major case worked together by Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton and Kyle Secor’s Tim Bayliss. “Homicide” tracked the investigation over multiple episodes until the two cops settled on a local fruit merchant (in Baltimore parlance, an “Araber”) as the most obvious suspect. In an episode called “Three Men and Adena,” Pembleton and Bayliss bring the Araber in for one long interrogation that will be their last chance at closing the case. They talk and talk and talk, and at one point come incredibly close to eliciting a confession, before time runs out on the interview, and the investigation. They think the Araber did it, but they’ll never get a conviction, and never know for sure. But that lack of an arrest and/or a concrete explanation for Adena’s murder takes no impact away from the episode – it is, in fact, one of the very best hours of TV drama ever produced.
Similarly, Simon’s “The Wire” (also set in Baltimore) was often at its most powerful when its stories ended in ways we didn’t want them to. (That show never really trafficked in ambiguity about who did what, but plenty of its characters got fates – good or bad – they didn’t deserve.)
Again, Koenig has brought enough experts into the story (the Innocence Project lawyers, a retired D.C. cop) that a smoking gun, for or against Adnan, could miraculously emerge in the coming weeks. But if Koenig already knows everything she’s going to know about this case, and ends this season of “Serial” with a rumination on the elusive nature of truth, I’m not going to feel shortchanged. This is the story she chose to tell, and she has thus far told it incredibly well. If the story ends without further enlightenment, then that was the story.
What does everybody else think? Do you need a definitive conclusion for the “Serial” experience to feel worthwhile? Or are you just interested in it as it goes, wherever it goes?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org