‘Serial’ and the Problem with an Unfinished Story

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Every now and then some new product comes along that really makes your stomach churn. For me, it was an Indiegogo campaign for a Serial-inspired vigilante app. The proposed app, CrowdSolve, is specifically designed for citizen investigators who want a platform to dig into unsolved crimes with a bunch of strangers on the internet. Basically, what the Reddit community has been doing to the Serial podcast ever since it catapulted into our lives earlier this fall — picking apart the facts, scrutinizing characters, theorizing alternate timelines for the crime. Making a game and a fandom of real-life murder.

In the case of Serial, it’s the 1999 strangulation of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old from Baltimore and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Tomorrow marks the final episode of the whirlwind, smash-hit podcast which has exceeded all expectations, reaching 5 million downloads faster than any other in history. It also may mark the end of the internet’s armchair detective work on Syed’s case — which for weeks has loomed next to host Sarah Koenig’s reporting like a truth-seeking, fanatical sidecar. And, I’d argue, it’s gotten in the way (ahem, CrowdSolve).

Tomorrow, we won’t definitively know whether Adnan Syed was wrongfully convicted. Your #TeamAdnan or #TeamJay hashtags will be for naught. An appeals court won’t be rehearing one aspect of Syed’s case until this coming January and UVA’s Innocence Project is still whittling away at the forensics of the case. This story is live, evolving, and has severe, dark, real consequences. We won’t be satisfied with a “gotcha” ending because this story, unlike other podcasts, TV shows, and films, is not a narrative held together by the puppet-strings of a writer. This is finicky, shit-stirring, confounding, untraceable, unknowable life.

“I’m disappointed in Serial,” a coworker told me last Thursday morning. I sighed.

There goes the stomach churn again. There’s something unsettling about an unfinished story. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and Gogol’s Dead Souls are considered great works of literature, shoe-ins for the canon. But they were never finished and there’s something irksome about that. They were narratives with true road maps and authorial intentions, released midway through like they were caught undressing by the publisher. I keep imagining Reddit forums with titles like “Two theories about the Reeve’s Tale!!!” or “Don’t believe Ilúvatar, here’s an alternative creation myth.” Sure, posthumously published works don’t necessarily go viral, but it’s still pretty laughable when we put Serial in the context of other unfinished narratives. Most stories benefit from having a closed window to critics during their creation. For many reasons, Serial’s not quite like that.

This isn’t a podcast. This is finicky, shit-stirring, confounding, unknowable life.

First came the backlash. Some said the podcast was glamorizing murder, some said it had a huge problem with its representation of a model minority myth, others said it completely ignored white privilege. There was a mini PR fiasco with Best Buy. The aforementioned subreddit reached 700,000 unique visitors per month. A few weeks later, as any art spanning a protracted period of time is susceptible to, there were noticeable traces of the outside world — its criticisms and fanatical fact-checking — inside of the podcast. In Episode 10, “The Best Defense is a Good Defense,” Koenig for the first time examined questions of Islamophobia in the case. A Woodlawn student who shoplifted at Best Buy came on the podcast to talk after just being a listener. Koenig also lightly addressed the fact that Hae Lee’s brother had listened to the podcast and didn’t exactly approve — a fact she only knew about because of Reddit. “Being a [sic] media person that she is, she wants some big ending. You can tell my [sic] her reaction to Innocent [sic] Project taking her case and private investigator. Either she is bias or want some kinda big ending to this podcast,” he wrote.

For a generation that diametrically opposes pop culture we can’t binge, the incremental reveal of Serial has been something of a test for both fans and the podcast itself. Sarah Koenig doesn’t create her podcast in a vacuum. We don’t know what the podcast would sound like had it been pre-recorded and released as a finished, reported package. “I said it’s not my responsibility to make a perfect ending. I do want a solid ending that is based in my reporting. But I don’t feel a responsibility to make it the kind of entertainment that you would get on some TV drama. No way. That would be crazy,” Koenig told The New York Times.

I asked other rabid fans what they were making of the ending of Serial after 12 episodes and seemingly no closure in sight. “I am disappointed in Serial because, to me, the highlights of the series were the who-dun-it, did he or didn’t he moments as opposed to the this is what getting convicted of a questionable homicide in America is like,” says Will, who came to the podcast late. “I think inviting the audience into an unfinished story that the teller does not have a clear ending to certainly made for the audience and reporting around it to shape the listener’s views of what to expect and see — that may be the reason that I wanted a story that I didn’t get,” he adds.

Others are okay with being left high and dry. “Ambiguity is natural. In fact, I would be suspicious if it was wrapped up tidily,” says Liam, an avid listener. “My current status with the show is resigned. I feel like it hasn’t taken a dive so much as it’s necessarily wrapping up,” explains an early adopter of the podcast, Meredith. “Our expectations were way too high for something that is actually real life, and I am way tired of citizens journalists and think piece culture […] I cannot be sated.”

“I think the real-time reaction to the reporting is interesting. Serial is already a novel storytelling format and I think the crowdsourcing/interactive element is kind of cool. But I think the live reporting would be incredibly frustrating if you are still expecting a solution,” says Sarah, a MailKimp fan. Another listener, Molly, has managed her expectations as the podcast went on over the last 13 weeks. “I still love Serial, but I’d definitely say that my feelings for it have cooled from oh-my-god-we-just-started-dating-and-I-am-SO-into-you to more of a warm companionship. It isn’t nearly as exciting as it was those first few weeks, but listening to Sarah think and explain her process is still such a pleasure that I don’t mind.”

“I have mixed feelings about the robust response the show has generated online,” Molly admits. “The book club nerd in me appreciates all the thoughtful discussion on the subreddit — I never post myself, but I skim through it maybe once a week — and elsewhere, but I’m horrified by the prospect of Crowdsolve, as well as any rogue attempts by fans to contact Hae’s and Adnan’s families.”

That’s the damage done — our own rabid obsession might be the reason why many many of us are, in fact, anticipating a letdown. Late last month it was discovered Reddit users were taking the case into their own hands and monitoring Jay, the star witness of the 1999 homicide case, and watching outside of his house. Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s and the reason for the podcast’s existence, has taken herself off Reddit to give herself peace of mind. Yusuf Syed, Adnan’s younger brother, has lurked on the subreddit and has found what people say absolutely “toxic.” The line has become too fine between journalist and internet commenter. There are real ethical questions at stake in this reporting, real lives impacted, and real emotions at hand. This week Redditors have created a $25,000 Hae Min Lee Memorial Scholarship to give back to the Woodlawn community. It’s a nice gesture, but it creeps into what-are-fans-really-doing-with-this-case territory.

“Adnan is obviously aware of this podcast, that it’s out in the world and I could tell that my story had messed with his equilibrium,” Koenig said in the latest podcast. But people are now so ready to insert themselves into the narrative that we might all be corrupting our own enjoyment of it. If we fall under the hypnosis of thinking this is pure mystery entertainment, how could we ever really ever be satisfied with a “contemplation on the nature of truth“?

In the end, what really matters about Serial is if we take it at face-value: a podcast about a journalist’s journey.

In the end, what really matters about Serial is if we take it at face-value: a podcast about a journalist’s journey. “As a reporter, it matters not at all if Koenig doesn’t know what to make of all this. As a storyteller, it matters more. And that may be why, more and more, the story is the only one she can really tell — the story of her own travels with this case,” says Linda Holmes of NPR. Listeners need to take heed that the podcast and the homicide case are two separate narratives and ones that, try as the fans might, we don’t really have anything personally to do with.

“Honestly, I never expected a good ending in the first place, so I’m fine no matter what Thursday brings,” Molly tells me when I ask her how she has dealt with thinking of narrative closure for true crime reporting. “I’ve kind of developed a taste for navel-gazey bullshit, if only because that can feel more truthful than tacking on conventional narrative closure where it doesn’t really belong. Let Sarah Koenig do Sarah Koenig!”

Let Sarah Koenig do Sarah Koenig? We’ll try. And if I’m disappointed with tomorrow’s episode, I know it’s my own damn fault.