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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Review: Podcast series allows listeners to play detective


    Courtesy of Serial

    “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” may be entertaining modernizations of the murder-mystery genre, but they lack an appealing aspect one radio journalist has in her favor: They’re not true.

    “Serial” is a weekly podcast released every Thursday that investigates the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend at the time, Adnan Syed, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Fifteen years later, if one asks the members of the jury who convicted Syed — as host Sarah Koenig has — they will tell you confidently Syed did it. But Koenig, and many listeners, are not so convinced.

    Koenig begins the podcast with posing a question to listeners: What were you doing six weeks ago? She poses the same question to several boys around the same age as Syed at the time of the murder, and the answers are vague — he was probably at school, or maybe seeing a movie. She calls into question the reliability of memory and how this one important question is what constructed a case against Syed.

    Koenig is a masterful storyteller with an inquisitive voice who isn’t afraid to say when something feels off about a person’s account of the events. She explores the case from all angles, leaving no stone unturned. Koenig and her team from “This American Life” reconstruct key elements of the crime, such as the timeline between 2:15 and 2:36 p.m. that the prosecution said the murder must have occurred, taking the same drive from Syed and Lee’s high school to the Best Buy parking lot, where the murder allegedly occurred. She re-examines the evidence of the case, such as Syed’s cell phone records from Jan. 13, 1999, the day Lee was killed, and how the different cell towers indicate what location Syed — or at least, Syed’s phone — would have been that day.

    But what’s most compelling about “Serial” isn’t the examination of the evidence that may or may not have been accurately presented in trial. It’s the many witnesses she speaks to throughout the podcast, in hopes to understand on a human level why Syed was convicted of the murder.

    Most notably, Koenig records her conversation with Syed in prison, who maintains his innocence and discusses consistent and conflicting evidence with Koenig. Koenig calls him a “nice guy,” and hearing his voice throughout the podcast, it’s hard to argue otherwise. He’s polite and has little ill will towards those who accused him of murder, to the point where Koenig and listeners must question: Is Syed a psychopath?

    It’s no surprise that this true crime story has captivated a cult following. After all, “NCIS” is the most-watched show on television and fans across the Internet anxiously await for the newest series of “Sherlock.” As a culture, we are obsessed with whodunit stories, in the mystery and intrigue of watching, reading or hearing a story and trying to play detective.

    And that’s where “Serial” has become a true success. Listeners are solving the crime along with Koenig. She and the producers of the show do not know how or when this season of “Serial” will end. There’s an intense Reddit community devoted to unpacking the layers of the latest episode, who, like Koenig, have read between the lines of witness testimonies and even done so much as analyzing the cell phone tower pings and how they conflict with Jay, the prosecution’s star witness, and his testimony.

    “Serial” is huge not just because it’s a murder mystery, but because it’s a true murder mystery. The families of Syed and Lee listen to the show, commenting on how this popular story is their reality. When Koenig speaks of issues like religion, xenophobia, poor police work and damning defense attorneys, it reminds listeners these things happen every day, and for some, like Syed, possibly, these things can lead to real, horrible consequences.

    Perhaps most importantly, “Serial” confronts us with the question few other forms of entertainment do: Why? Why would Jay lie and say Syed killed Lee? Why would Syed do it and lie about it with a life sentence? And, to quote a high school friend of Jay and Syed interviewed during the podcast, if Syed didn’t do it, “Well, then who the fuck did?”


    Follow Mia Moran on Twitter.

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