by Zachary Evans

There are countless portrayals of criminal justice, criminology, and criminal investigations in popular culture today. Shows like CSI have become ratings juggernauts, while ones like True Detective have ruled critically. While these stand primarily as forms of entertainment, they still inform public perception of real-world crime solving. In the last year, a new voice emerged in true crime entertainment in the podcast Serial, and in a few short months, became an incredibly important piece of pop culture.

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig

Serial is a spinoff of the incredibly popular radio program This American Life and was co-created by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, and hosted by Koenig. It tells the story of Koenig and her staff’s investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The state of Maryland’s case against Syed heavily relied on their timeline of the murder, which included a 21 minute window where they assert Lee was murdered.

The first season of the podcast consisted of twelve weekly episodes between October 3rd and December 18th, each touching on different aspects and revealing new details of the investigation. It was captivating and immersive, and quickly set records as the fastest podcast to ever reach five million downloads and streams in iTunes alone.

It was an undeniable hit.

Why was it such an immediate success though? There are countless podcasts available for listeners to choose from, many of which are already well established as ongoing radio shows, or are hosted by celebrities with preexisting fan bases. An obvious factor in this success is Serial’s attachment to This American Life, but even with that kind of backing, the numbers are still groundbreaking. After listening to even one episode of the podcast, it is clear and obvious that there are two things that set Serial apart—the writing, and Koenig’s narration of it.

ach7According to the University of Southern California, the most important lesson people utilizing new media, such as podcasts, need to learn is that good writing never goes out of style. Serial’s writing, and how it is read by Koenig was, at all times, incredibly captivating and interesting. It toed a line of revealing enough information to get the listener hooked, while holding back additional pieces in order to bring them back for additional episodes. It catapoulted the listener into the mind of the investigator in the way a fantastic crime novel does, but through the lens of a true story.

ach8Serial is important on the merits of its popularity alone. However, its importance is not solely based in this. The podcast is important because it injects truths about real world investigation, criminology and the American criminal justice system into the mainstream.

While it is true that shows such as CSI have popularized crime fighting and criminal justice within pop culture for some time now, their largely fictitious methods have had a damaging effect on public knowledge of the subject. Serial dove into the frustrating lack of evidence present in the case through host Sarah Koenig’s own misconceptions about how legal cases are built. She was shocked at the lack of biological evidence or fingerprints present in the case, when, in reality, “less than 1% of all serious crimes are solved with DNA” and “just over one in four lab cases include identifiable fingerprints.

Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed

Serial also served as a fantastic way to showcase the ways in which criminology and criminal justice interact within the real world. According to an article from Portland State University about these two fields, “Ideally, they should be used in tandem to create a knowledge base that provides unique insight into the social determinants of crime and how the justice system better address it.” Throughout the podcast, Koenig detailed aspects of the investigation of Hae Min Lee’s murder and Baltimore Police’s investigation of Adnan Syed, and then connected it with Syed’s trials. She talked about how a piece of evidence or testimony was discovered in the investigation, then compared and contrasted its use in the courtroom. This connection between the sides of this case is important in bringing about a better public understanding of these two fields and how they interact.

ach2While the podcast covers a wide range of aspects from “the case, there continues to be one vital piece that everything ties back to—the 21 minute window on January 13th, 1999.” This window connects the listener with the crushing reality that frequently there are not satisfactory answers to the most important question of an investigation. Though it is the key to his claim of innocence, Syed cannot recall exactly where he was during that 21 minutes. There are conflicting testimonies about Syed during those 21 minutes, including one from a schoolmate’s of Syed named Asia McClain that would seem to exonerate him. However, McClain was never brought forward as a witness in the case, a fact that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfying answer for.

This uncertainty, as well as the other revealingly realistic aspects of Serial’s investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee and the investigation and trial of Adnan Syed are what makes Serial so incredibly important. It stripped away the flash and immediate gratification that is present among other representations of crime and criminal investigation in popular culture. It made the listener confront the truth that not all questions have answers and not every investigation is based on easy to gather, surefire evidence. It lifted the veil of fiction without sacrificing a single piece of what draws people into the crime genre.

It proved that a genuine search for truth can be viable motivation in entertainment today, and for fans of true crime, that is an exciting revelation.

 

Photo by Lindsey Morris

Photo by Lindsey Morris

Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners. 

 

https://www.facebook.com/lindsey.morris.90475

 

15 Responses to “Serial” and the Introduction of Truth in Crime Entertainment

  1. Max Myers says:

    Interesting and informative piece, Zachary and opened my eyes to an aspect of pop culture I wasn’t aware of. I was wondering if Syed’s race had anything to do with the verdict, or was it conclusive that he committed the murder?

  2. Zachary Evans says:

    Max, thank you for the kind words! That’s definitely an interesting and complicated question. It’s very hard to say that race wasn’t a serious aspect of the verdict. The state had minimal hard evidence against Syed. Their case was largely built on the testimony of one man named Jay, who came to the police saying Syed had committed the murder. However, his timeline and details of the events changed every time they interviewed him, and what he testified at trial was a combination of pieces of each testimony he gave (and there are recordings of his interviews as well as appearance at trial). The other major part of the state’s case was based on what they built as Syed’s motive, which was based around him becoming enraged at Hae Min Lee for dumping him, when he had risked a great deal of “honor,” as the state put it, by going outside of the laws of Islam to date her. It is far from conclusive that he murdered her and he still maintains his innocence. The Innocence Project is currently working on Syed’s case.

    • Max Myers says:

      As his testimony was so erratic, pieces from each interview, it wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that because of the enormous pressure he was under, given the seriousness of the charges coupled with going against Islam and his family, that his sanity had to be compromised. All of that, however, doesn’t mean he’s guilty and truly I hope that The Innocence Project finds out, one way or another, the truth in this matter.

  3. Rick says:

    Great post, Zachary! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and now have one more show that I must watch.

  4. Zachary Evans says:

    Rick, thank you for the kind words! I definitely recommend it. It can be found for free either through iTunes’ podcast center or at serialpodcast.org

    • Rick says:

      You bet, Zachary. I’ll check out serialpodcast.org, as I’m one of the mythic 47% of Americans who like “free stuff.” (I would bet that that percentage is actually closer to 99%, contrary to the assertions of “Mint Raw Money,” a/k/a Mitt Romney). :)

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        All Things Crime Blog is totally 100 % free, with the exception of the cruel battering my psyche has endured during its 23 month lifespan. :-)

        • Rick says:

          And the Packs’ recent collapse in the NFC title game against the Seahawks certainly didn’t help. That will rank right down there with the Cubs’ collapse against the Mets in the 1969 season, the error by the Red Sox’s Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, also against the Mets, and Steve Hartman’s reaching out into the field of play to catch a foul ball in the Cubs’ 2004(?) playoff game against the Marlins, depriving them of a third out in the inning.

          BTW, I didn’t tune into this year’s NFC title game till 7 minutes was left and was astounded to see that the Pack had the ball near midfield with a 19-7 lead. Game over, right? Not so fast, bucky! I feel your pain. Now you know how I felt when the Bears missed out on the playoffs two years ago when Rodgers burned them with a very late and long TD pass. And when the Pack beat the Bears in the 2010 NFC title game. Oh well, as a long-suffering Cubs and Bears fan, my well-rehearsed mantra is “there’s always next year. . . . ‘ :)

          • PatrickHMoore says:

            You would remind me of the Pack collapse. It’s a good thing I’m an incredibly stable guy or I would surely have broke my connection with the land of the living, possibly with the help of my .40 caliber S&W. But no one needs to worry; I would not have taken the family out with me. I need someone to lay me in the cold, cold ground.

          • Rick says:

            Patrick – I must have mentioned the other epic failures of sports teams (mostly Chicago-based) mainly because “misery loves company.” But do you know what? I don’t feel any better because of your pain.

          • PatrickHMoore says:

            We will suffer together just as all criminal defense folks do.

  5. JN says:

    Excellent work Zachary. Nothing truer than this: “not every investigation is based on easy to gather, surefire evidence.” Was watching the excellent crime series “Fargo” where Lester is being questioned about the murder of his wife; he keeps backing off, saying he doesn’t want to answer any more questions, he’s upset, etc. If I had a dime for every time that lame excuse gets lobbed…

  6. Zachary Evans says:

    JN,

    Thank you! I definitely enjoyed Fargo and how it portrayed the boundaries that get in the way of an investigation. I loved the way they handle Lester and show his cowardice as his means for escaping justice. It was a very interesting dynamic that wasn’t necessarily typical for crime entertainment.

  7. […] discussed an overall view of Serial’s significance in an article for All Things Crime, but now would like to get into the specifics of the different areas of criminology and […]

  8. Zachary Evans says:

    Anyone interested in Serial, or just the story behind this whole thing, there have been some major updates in the case recently. Adnan Syed was granted an appeal, which will be heard in June. Here’s a story by The Washington Post about it:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/02/07/md-court-will-allow-adnan-syed-to-appeal-his-conviction-in-serial-case/

    Also, I wrote an article for PursuitMag covering a bit of a different angle on Serial, so if you’re interested, here it is:
    http://pursuitmag.com/serial-source-truth-crime-entertainment/

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