Life As a Story: The Serial Podcast

January 08, 2015

Before I start fangirling, thanks to Julianne for persuading me it would be a good idea to write this post (or, at least, that she would read it if I did). So happy to have met you through Bout of Books 12!

OK, so, Serial. The twelve-episode podcast took the Internet by storm last fall (it even got its own meta-podcast), but in case you missed it, Serial is a This American Life spin-off, produced and hosted by Sarah Koenig. Its first season featured a reexamination of the 1999 murder case of high school student Hae Min Lee. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged and convicted of the murder based upon (as we discover, along with Koenig) murky evidence. I could go into a synopsis, but, really, I'd just be repeating the work of others. If you're that curious, just listen, but don't blame me for how you spend the next 12 hours of your life. It's an amazing piece of investigative journalism and spellbinding ear candy.

Anyway, major spoiler alert: Koenig and her colleagues do not "crack the case." Syed is still in prison, and, although we're all on the edge of our seats over whether DNA from the case can or will actually be tested, it's entirely possible he'll remain in prison. It's entirely possible it's the right place for him to be. We really don't know.

And this seems to upset some people. We all wanted an ending, irrational as it was to expect from the get-go. We all had the burning anticipation we get as we near the end of a particularly good mystery novel. Seriously, whodunit? FunnyOrDie took advantage of this fact particularly well. When she spoke with Terry Gross last month, Koenig says that even Ira Glass suggested that she and her team solve the murder to round out the series (ooookay, Ira). (Unrelated: I will use any excuse to bring this comic back.) At the end of the day, Koenig and her team aren't detectives; they're storytellers.

As a bookish gal, this got me thinking about our need as humans to squeeze the world into neat narrative arcs that it (almost) never fits into. That's not to say that there isn't a definite series of events associated with this crime—there had to be have been, for it to occur—but it's one we may never find out, no matter how badly we want to. 

To be disappointed in the podcast for that fact is to miss all the other fantastic points it has to offer: its commentary on the faultiness of memory, its portrayal of just how flawed our justice system can be (a favorite topic of mine), and the rollercoaster ride of humanity's capacity to trust and to doubt. Sure, we didn't get things tied up in a neat bow for us, but, seriously, when does life happen that way?

As for me? I blame the stupid library. Who only has seven tapes for its security cameras? Ugh, 1999.

Anyone else listen to Serial? (I know you did, Julianne.) What did you think?

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  1. Aww, I'm glad I met you too!

    Anyway, love this post. I was super prepared to be disappointed by it, because I reaaaaally wanted it to all be resolved nicely and I knew that I wanted that, and I also knew that there was no way in hell that was going to happen. At first I had hope that it might, but when there were like 2-3 episodes left I was like yeah, it's not going to happen.

    So I wasn't disappointed, because I knew I wasn't going to get what I wanted. But I also thought the ending was pretty good. It wasn't an examination of the nature of truth, really. It didn't feel too existential or anything.

    Do you think that we (and our consumption of stories) are to blame for wanting a more fictional ending, though? I think we do always kind of have that desire, but at the same time, Koenig kind of did set us up for that desire. So often she would use tactics used in fiction like red herrings. I mean, granted, sometimes in life there just are some when things don't pan out into anything, but at the top of an episode she would act like something was a big deal and at the end it wouldn't be. So she did already know. I don't know who's to blame for our expectations, really.

    Amen to ugh, 1999.

    1. Yeah, same about wanting a more conclusive ending! I'm sure Koenig and her team hoped there would be one too.

      You're right that Koenig did play to the human desire for a neat story. I think that's a huge reason why it became so popular—if she'd just been like, "Hey guys, here's this thing. Here are some disjointed pieces of evidence, and we don't really know what happened," no one would have listened. So that's a super valid point.

      It makes me wonder what it would be like to have more stories (books, movies, etc.) that were less predictable or basically trailed off, never to have a real conclusion. I think some try to do it, but so many fall prey to having some kind of hint or reveal right at the end that points toward a more concrete ending. Can you think of any that do that successfully, or maybe what it is that people don't like about it? Like, I know we're afraid of uncertainty, but do you think that's the full answer?

    2. I don't know, I think everyone gets frustrated when there are books that don't have a real conclusion. Like someone can love a book up until the end. I mean, sometimes abrupt endings can be really powerful, but at the same time, I'm still annoyed.

      Like I just finished All the Birds, Singing and the end has the characters finding a thing, but we don't see it. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel, so I was reading reviews and basically everyone was mad at the author, if it bothered them. Like people feel like they were cheated out of something, they called it a cop out. Like they owe us something more for us investing our time and emotions into something that isn't real. I don't really know where I'm going with this, but I guess people can't be mad at Koenig in that same way, because she's not wholly responsible for her story world. She doesn't get to create things.

    3. Yeah, totally agreed. It's not like she withheld something—she just doesn't have it, and journalists don't make stuff up.

      So yeah, I don't know the answer either. I think people just like to get mad. That's probably a good moral to most stories.

  2. I'm on episode 10 now and I love it so much. It's my first time listening to a podcast series and I'm hooked. And I find I keep changing my mind about what actually happened. But I'm not going to get mad over the ending, unfortunately that is real life, nothing everything gets wrapped up neatly.