Beyond reasonable doubt, we’re guilty of a cultural obsession with dead girl dramas. Stories about pretty girls in shallow graves strike fear in our hearts and captivate our suspicious minds. Like countless others, I participate in this fascination; Twin Peaks, True Detective, Top of the Lake, Gone Girl – I’ve collected them all. So it was inevitable that I’d get hooked on Serial, a spin-off podcast from public radio giants This American Life and the latest dead girl drama to capture the popular imagination.
Serial is a true crime investigation, the self-proclaimed “story of Hae Min Lee, an eighteen-year-old girl who was killed in Baltimore in 1999, and the story of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend who was convicted of the crime.” It features real characters, real lives, and a real death. Part of Serial’s magic is that at times it seems fashioned to make us forget that it’s based in reality; at other times its objective is to ensure we remain alert to the creator’s allegiance to the truth.
Edgar Allen Poe’s oft-regurgitated line has once again been taken as a mission statement. Yes, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” and there are some engaging and utterly enthralling storytelling poetics at work in Serial. But as a journalistic investigation, how does it rate ethically?
In the first episode of Serial, creator and host Sarah Koenig explains how twelve months ago lawyer Rabia Chaudry brought Syed’s case to her attention. Chaudry is an acquaintance of Syed’s, who believes Syed’s the victim of an unfair trial and personally hopes to exonerate him. We’re now halfway through the series’ initially intended twelve-episode run and no closer to any answer on the matter of Syed’s innocence or guilt – and apparently neither is Koenig.
From the outset, Koenig has established herself as a flawed, relatable narrator and character. Time and again she aligns herself with the unwitting audience as a clueless amateur sleuth, digging through police files and court transcripts, interviewing friends and teachers of Syed and Lee, displaying the same uninformed intrigue as fans on Reddit speculation pages and dedicated Facebook groups. In a number of interviews across Vulture, Slate, TIME and other publications that have sprung up at this halfway point, Koenig positions herself as just like you or me. “If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you,” she states time and time again.
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