Serial's Real Life Murder Mystery Is Entertaining, but Is That a Good Thing?

This sign on the rooftop of a bar asks people not to speak.
This sign on the rooftop of a bar asks people not to speak.

I was running late last night, as 8 p.m. approached swiftly and I was still not on Greenville Avenue. I wasn't meeting people for dinner or drinks, and it was unlikely my night would last past 9 p.m. I was headed to a podcast listening party. Because exactly two weeks before, I'd become obsessed -- like thousands of others -- with a little podcast called Serial.

If you've not yet sunk your teeth into this strange cultural phenomenon, let me explain. Serial is an offshoot of Ira Glass' NPR Show, This American Life. Created by Sarah Koenig, it's a product of her obsession with the 15-year-old conviction of one Adnan Sayed in the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. At the time, 17-year-old Adnan maintained his innocence and the state's case against him was based entirely on the testimony of his slightly older friend Jay, who was also Sayed's pot dealer, and who 'fessed up to being a sort-of accomplice to the crime. It was a case of a man spurned, authorities ruled. Lee broke up with Sayed, so he killed her. Now Sayed has spent nearly half his life in prison, but never once has he wavered from claiming his innocence. The problem? He was arrested six weeks after Lee's body went missing, and he couldn't remember what he'd done that day. He had no alibi.

Sounds like an episode of Law & Order, but Koenig is telling it in pieces -- last night episode 10 aired -- and her reporting and research is exhaustive and her storytelling is spot on. She's taking the whole thing seriously, but she's packaged it as entertainment. For weeks, her listeners have played detective with her. We've waffled from being skeptical of Jay and then skeptical of Sayed. I've spent hours reading what other people have to say about the show. Is it wrong that we've become voyeurs of real lives? Is this a new era of podcast popularity? Some, perhaps, are taking it too far.

Last night's episode was spent almost entirely on the courtroom. Koenig asked, did his defense attorney blow it? (Which was the premise upon which Koenig first learned about Sayed's case.) What was the strategy of the defense? The prosecution? Who were key witnesses? How was the jury selected? And that last question is what I've been turning over for the last 12 hours.

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As I was looking around the roof of Sundown at Granada, watching my fellow obsessives, their mouth agape, sipping cocktails or taking selfies, I asked myself a simple, little question: Are we a fair jury? In a group of about 30 people, I noticed mostly well-dressed 20-somethings, counted perhaps five or six non-white members of the crowd and a pretty even ratio of men to women. I wasn't wondering whether we'd rule on Sayed's guilt or innocence, because one of the hooks of the show is the unraveling of his conviction. Instead, I wonder if the people listening to Serial are able to listen thoughtfully -- equitably -- to the show.

The first question they asked potential jurors in Sayed's case was whether they or someone else in their family had been the victim of a crime. Because what has happened to you affects the way you pass judgment. So the question I'm wrestling with now is whether it's fair to listen to Serial as entertainment, the story of a real person's potential crime. All along the way, I'm passing judgment on players and witnesses in this story. Is that fair when I'm so far removed from crime myself? I've no intention of letting next week slip by without listening. And should the Granada host another party, I'll be there, seeking out someone else to share my obsession. But are we burning with anger over the idea that he was wrongfully convicted or are we biting our nails in voyeuristic anticipation, gleefully awaiting the next episode?

Catch up on Serial at serialpodcast.org and share your thoughts in the comments below.


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