Why Serial can’t not believe in Adnan Syed

I think the moment the smash-hit, podcast-of-podcasts Serial became my guilty pleasure was when creator Sarah Koenig did a guest interview on another of my podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and I was reluctant to listen because I hadn’t caught up and was afraid of spoilers.

Spoilers. The first time I used that word on this blog, a fantasy dwarf shot a warlord with a crossbow. The second time, a Baltimore teen killed his ex (maybe).

I wasn’t early to the backlash, which you can guess at even if you don’t follow the show: The true (or at least, nonfictional) story of a murder case that left Baltimore high schooler Adnan Syed in jail for half his life and counting has the trappings of a paperback whodunnit, yet whodunits are delightful for all the wrong reasons if the dead girl is real.

Of course, one can’t fault the journalist if her story actually has narrative appeal, which is what inspired Koenig (who maintained to Stephen Colbert that she still doesn’t know how it will come out one week before the finale) to tell it one week at a time.

The problem is that the show not only can, but must tantalize, every single episode, even when the story doesn’t necessarily want to. This gives Koenig’s team some purely Hollywood responsibilities: They have to make the listener pull for Adnan; otherwise there would be no stakes. They have to make us believe in the possibility of his innocence while keeping his supposed guilt in the foreground. And most importantly, we have to feel like Koenig is just as mystified as we are.

Doubtlessly the story is suited to these tasks, that’s why they picked it. But perfectly? Doubtlessly not. This makes Serial a kind of Jekyll-Hyde of real journalism and paperback schmaltz. Even if most of the time the narrative serves the journalism, once in a while it’s going to be the other way around. And we have no way to know when.

I’m bringing this up on near the season terminus because (well, ok, because this blog has been on hiatus, but also because) we’re starting to see some of Koenig’s maneuvering play itself out in the show’s endgame.

When Koenig introduces Adnan’s attorney Christina Gutierrez in episode one,  she tells us that his family suspects she threw the case to make more money during appeals and, indeed, that Gutierrez was later disbarred for mishandling client funds. She doesn’t come back to these until episode ten: Turns out, the case-throwing was an unfounded hunch, and Gutierrez’s fall from grace was more for crimes of negligence than real corruption. Yet Koenig let that seed grow for nine episodes. She allowed it to subtly sway us against Gutierrez before it was her time to take the stand – so to speak.

At one point while analyzing the evidence, Koenig realizes (or seems to) that a lawyer’s goal isn’t truth, but to employ truth only when it is useful for making a case. I’m not sure the Serial team isn’t operating the same way: The truth is good, but the story is better.

I texted Carla Jean about this (as one does for moral-epistemic crises). She said perhaps Serial flavors its journalism with entertainment, but don’t we all? Any story has demands for storytelling. But on the other hand: “The dramatic arc is inherently more problematic when stretched over three months and dealing with real people.”

This isn’t breaking news. Adnan isn’t going anywhere. The reporting may be in progress, but they could have finished and released the episodes all at once Netflix-style. Yes, the show wouldn’t have reached its 5 million listeners without  snowballing buzz like a season of Breaking Bad, but it is paying for those downloads in integrity. It would give me pause if a convicted killer got a legal remedy because a whodunit made 5 million people think he’s innocent.

“Except what if he is innocent?” Carla Jean replied.

Maybe he is. Serial, at least, believes in Adnan. Problem is, it has no choice.

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