Your Guide To ‘Serial,’ The True Crime Podcast Everyone Is Freaking Out About Right Now

If you’ve spent any substantial amount of time on the Internet in the past week or so, or spent any substantial amount of time with anyone who has, you’ve probably been introduced to Serial, the new This American Life sister podcast that is taking the world by storm. Created by longtime TAL producer Sarah Koenig, the program has turned the idea of podcasting on its head a bit, following one story for an entire season over an as-yet-undetermined number of episodes, with each episode zeroing in on a particular aspect the story. Hence the title Serial. Think of it like this: Most podcasts are Law & Order, with a bunch of standalone episodes that might be tied together with a few threads. Serial is more like True Detective.

And like True Detective, its focus is a decade-old murder investigation that someone is looking at with fresh eyes because it didn’t — and still doesn’t — seem to add up. From the About section of the Serial website:

On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

So that is the gist of it. But it is very much only the gist. The captivating part of the show — the part that has wrangled it close to a million unique listeners, and that caused me to listen to all of the show’s seven-episode backlog in a 24-hour span late last week — is the presentation. Koenig is an experienced and gifted storyteller, and the way she weaves things together ends up embedding the show deep in your brain. (Seriously, ask a listener for their thoughts about the show and watch their eyes light up.) It’s very conversational, like having drinks with a friend who leads a much more interesting life than you do. And in between those conversational bits, we get the evidence (and sometimes the lack thereof) presented in a number of different ways: court transcripts read aloud, audio of police interviews, audio of present-day conversations with Adnan and Hae’s friends, and most fascinatingly, in recorded jailhouse interviews with Adnan himself.

The interviews are riveting in part because they pose a dilemma for the listener: Adnan is a smart, charming, and seemingly very nice guy who maintains his innocence 100%, and who appears to have a decent explanation for most of the circumstantial evidence the state used to put him away. You can’t help but come to like him, at least a little, despite the fact that he actually may have killed Hae. We still don’t know, and neither does Koenig. We may never find out. But by setting up the show the way the producers of Serial have, they leave us with three potential outcomes: 1) Adnan is proven not guilty and gets exonerated; 2) Adnan is probably not guilty, but will still end up serving life in prison because there’s not enough evidence to overturn; or 3) Adnan is a sociopath.

And yes, if you were wondering, people do have theories about this. Lots of them. The main hub for all the amateur investigating and theorizing — as it tends to be with these kinds of things — is reddit, where a very lively, very active subrebbit titled r/serialpodcast has opened up and gotten neck-deep in everything. If I have one ambivalence about Serial, this would be it. I compared the narrative structure of the show to True Detective back in the first paragraph, but the difference is that True Detective was a work of fiction. These are real people. A teenage girl really died. Even if Koenig avoids giving out too much personal information about some of the people she’s discussing (last names, locations, etc.), it’s all just a few narrowly targeted Google searches away. It’s … weird. And a little uncomfortable sometimes. It’s something that’s been a part of true crime journalism forever (a notable example being In Cold Blood by Truman Capote), but it feels more pronounced here. Maybe it’s the addictive, serialized nature of it. Maybe it’s just living in the age of the Internet. I honestly don’t know.

But don’t let any of that lead you to believe the show isn’t an enjoyable listen. Even with the heavy subject matter, there are still moments of levity. One of these came in Episode 5, when Koenig and fellow Serial producer Dana Chivvis were attempting to retrace Adnan’s route in their car and Dana announced, apropos of nothing, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.” What a perfect little alliterative sentence. I really can’t do it justice with a keyboard. It sounds almost like the secret code someone would use to gain access to a disco filled with notorious underworld figures in Act II of a Nicolas Cage movie. And the show also uses music in a masterful way, too, both with the original score playing in the background and filling quiet moments, and with the popular music from the time period they drop in to set the scene. At one point they kicked off a discussion about a school dance with the opening of “All My Life” by K-Ci & JoJo. If you were searching for the direct route to my heart, that would be it.

I should probably stop here. If I go much farther down this path, I run the risk of spoiling things for you, and I really don’t want to do that. Maybe we’ll have a separate discussion about the rest of it at some point down the line. Instead, I’ll just close with two thoughts:

  • As I said, there is a very real possibility that this ends without a “satisfying” resolution. Koenig has said that she’s still sorting through all of this herself, and more or less developing it all in real (or real-ish) time. She also doesn’t know how many episodes there are going to be, saying essentially that the story will stop when it feels right to stop. This could all get very loosey-goosey and unresolved very quickly, and if the ending of The Sopranos is any indication, many people do not do loosey-goosey and unresolved. Keep an eye out for that.
  • The next episode, Episode 8, drops this Thursday and is titled “The Deal With Jay.” Jay is the shady drug-dealing witness the government relied on for the meat of its case, and his shifty “evolving” testimony is completely at odds with Adnan’s version of the events. There’s a 50-60% chance I die of anticipation by Wednesday night. We can examine my passing further in Season 2 of Serial.

So that’s what the hubbub is about.