On February 9th, 2015, CBS News reported that NPR’s podcast Serial had been downloaded more than 68 million times. Since concluding its run on December 18th, 2014, Serial has occupied the #1 slot of the iTunes top podcasts list for four months. It took that spot even before it debuted. It broke records as the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads, and was lauded in the New York Times as “Podcasting’s first break out hit.” Serial was huge. You couldn’t miss it. I couldn’t either.
“One story, told week by week” was how Ira Glass explained Serial when it first aired on This American Life. It was all there in the title: Serial. As in serialized drama. In 2014, as consumers, we were living in a golden age of revitalized serialized drama, but this was a new slant on the staling formula – it was journalistic, even investigative.
Documentaries originated as an industrial medium for journalists to explain their findings. Now, they serve as creative powerhouses of opinion and entertainment. At first, a modern documentary could reach millions of people. Now, it can reach millions of people and their wallets. Still, despite the myriad of biased, entertainment focused documentaries that the last ten years of yielded–think Jesus Camp, Food Inc, and Supersize Me–I have never encountered something as morally bankrupt as Serial.The first red flag was how hard the team at This American Life worked to sell the premise of Serial. It was a serialized drama, to be dispersed one tantalizing bit at a time. It would feature cliffhangers. It would have villains. We would discover the truth along with our investigators. All of these things feel great to me with fictional drama. The problem with Serial was that it was real. This dramatic show, this tantalizing labyrinth of villains and cliffhangers was the real experiences of people that had been hurt and victimized in so many ways. To do it again in order to tell a riveting story seemed so unaware of it’s own irony that it felt like borderline parody.
Still, Serial remained intent to trudge up all that it could on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. They spoke with the girl’s parents who pleaded that they let the case go. They recreated the day of her death and, afterward, complained that the timeline between the reported day of the murder and their own timeline did not add up. Though, perhaps the most offensive thing done in the entire show had to do with one man: Jay.
For those that don’t know, the investigation into Hae Min Lee’s death was essentially a big ball of garbage. In the court, it was essentially reduced down to a game of “He Said, She Said,” between two principal parties – Jay and Adnan. In most ways, Adnan was the hero of our story. A young minority, thoughtful and well-spoken, imprisoned for a crime he claimed he did not commit. So thoughtful and well-spoken, in fact, that host of Serial Sarah Koeing had no problem fawning over him in episodes. At times, it felt to me that Sarah went as far as to falsely imply that Jay had committed the murder despite having absolutely no evidence.
The finale titled What We Know was a quiet meditation on the notion of memory. There was no resolution to the investigation. There was no smoking gun. Just high school level philosophical musings of “What do we really know? How can we really know it when memory is so faulty?” This would have been fine if Serial was a show about degenerative brain diseases or a man with amnesia escaping a dark past in a new town with a new life but it wasn’t. Serial was a show about a real crime involving real people. It was supposed to be investigative journalism. But it wasn’t. Serial was a show about opening old wounds and rolling the dice, hard, that they would come up for answers. To pivot in it’s final moments was bullshit on the level of the Lost finale.
Remember the finale to Lost? For seven years we watched people lost on an island hoping to uncover the mystery between their imprisonment and the land which held them. The finale turned the entire show on it’s head and into some metaphor for the afterlife. It was like “Sure, Lost was a show about people lost on an island but what if it’s about heaven now?” It was infurating. Fuck that, Lost was about people stuck on a fucking island. It wasn’t some grand statement about God. What’s worse? It was your fucking job to figure out how they got lost on that island in the first place. Don’t sell me some dime store bullshit about Jesus because you set up too many dominos and are afraid to knock down the whole set.
So, the show ends and to this day people are catching up on it. But what are the implications? Well, The Intercept ran an interview with Jay where he explains the hell that his life has become since the show finished its run. Here are some choice bits.
“Someone reached out to my wife, somebody that she didn’t know, saying that she was worried for my family. Then this person said she was worried because somebody posted our address on a public forum and said they planned to confront me. Now it looks like the moderators of the forum try to delete any personal information of ours after it’s posted. But they weren’t that good about it when the show first started. Sometimes stuff would be left on Reddit about me for days and weeks at a time before it had to be checked, and the post deleted. People were able to go onto my Facebook page and pull pictures of my kids, my dog, my house, my wife. People have also posted information about my family, criminal charges against me, my dad and my uncle. I don’t know why that is at all relevant to what Adnan did. I mean, I know that I was a criminal, and I know that even after this happened, I didn’t have an occupation. I mean, I kept doing my job of criminal shit. But I’m past all that now. I made a good home for my wife and kids.”
Perhaps Jay is a murderous asshole. It’s entirely possible. In fact, most people assume that Jay is a murderous asshole. Hey, though, guys? What if he isn’t? Have you stopped to think about that? What if this was just a dude that got mixed up in a crime, rehabilitated his life, and was punished for it by producers looking to sell you tantalizing shit, that was none of your business, one week at a time, so they could sell ad time to MailChimp? What about that? What about the cost of human life? Forget the entertainment. What about the victims of entertainment?
It was that sloppiness, cockiness, open-endedness, and lack of resolution which made Serial feel so dirty for me. People hated me when I talked about it. I couldn’t figure out why. It felt so clear that there was something better. There was a way to tell a story, entertain, but utilize patience and wait. I would always cite the ending of The Thin Blue Line. A similar documentary released in the late 80’s. Notoriously, the director or journalist of the piece shelved it for years because he didn’t have an ending. He didn’t have a smoking gun. That choice, that patience, that commitment to journalism, ended up being why it’s heralded as the greatest documentary of all time. The same patience was taken with The Jinx. I just wish the same had been taken with Serial.