I found the Serial podcast via a mention on Twitter and I’ve been gripped from the first episode. Looking in detail at a possible miscarriage of justice – did a Baltimore teenager really murder his ex-girlfriend or was he simply the easiest person to pin the conviction on – the series is made by journalist Sarah Koenig and produced by the creators of This American Life, a weekly show on national public radio in the USA and available to the rest of the world via podcast.
What makes Serial so compelling is the detail. 45 minute documentaries about these sort of things obviously reduce the narrative down so much that there’s no space to look at the nuance, the inconsistencies, the tiny details upon which these things hinge. With a single documentary we also know where things are heading – the quashing of a verdict, the vital new evidence, the joy of the released prisoner. We know where it’s going and we generally have an opinion on what we’re about to hear.
Serial isn’t like that. Koenig has been researching the case for about a year and has been combing through the statements, evidence, tapes of trial testimony, police reports and talking to the individuals at the centre of the case, including Adnan Syed, who was convicted and imprisoned in 2000. Each episode is around 40 minutes long and each looks at one element of the case, whether that’s alibis, the routes between the locales where the crime happened or the inconsistencies in the State’s main witness’ evidence. And that long-form exploration of what happened is what’s so great – it’s possible to fully explore the discrepancies. It’s satisfying as a narrative because there’s someone there asking the question that’s niggling at you and because it doesn’t reduce everything to black-and-white. It’s a format that is aware of the shades of grey and knows that the truth of what happened is probably to be found in those grey areas.
I don’t know how many episodes there are going to be and the series producers don’t know how this is going to end. We the listeners are only a couple of weeks behind them. On the basis of what we’ve heard so far I really couldn’t say whether I think Adnan is innocent or guilty – as I said, that’s one of the best aspects of this, that we’re finding out what happened without knowing where that leads. There have been 8 episodes already so catching up is a bit of a commitment but do try to – download and listen to it in the car or walking the dog or whatever.
Here’s the trailer to get you started. But do try to listen, it’s the best documentary I’ve come across in a long time.