Serial : Ethics and Dead Girl Shows

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.

But information is being deliberately withheld, for instance a response from the State’s main witness and Syed’s stoner pal, Jay, or even Jay’s surname or reference to his lack of response; likewise we’ve heard nothing from Stephanie – a key figure, Jay’s girlfriend, Syed’s friend. Other events or pieces of the story/case are held over for when it serves a particular episode’s plot like a particular (maybe game-changing) cell conversation dubbed “The Nisha Call”. All the while, the moral realities of this kind of reportage remain unacknowledged (how do Lee’s family feel about this? Are they listening?).

At this stage in the serial, Lee – the victim of brutal, systemic violence – is merely a peripheral force. She’s been packaged as entries from teen girl’s lovelorn diary, as quotes from her high school best friend and as mass of hidden hair and an exposed foot and a concealed corpse discovered in Leakin Park. Koenig has noted that she’s deliberately not focusing on Lee due to her inability to discuss this incredibly real trauma with her family members, those directly affected. Is this not a major and dubious omission? One that has only been acknowledged in the surrounding media, not the podcast itself? Is Serial unwittingly murdering the victim by silencing her in her own story? I could insert the classic Joan Didion “we tell ourselves stories” quotation here, but it seems distasteful.

Eugenia Williamson wrote for The Baffler that This American Life is “dramatic, non-fiction narrative in the form of a personal journey.” This is exactly how Serial is posited, with Koenig’s own investigation taking centre stage. But as Maria Tumarkin further described (somewhat tongue in cheek) in her brilliant essay “This Narrated Life,” “Oh, yes, you work on your story arc, you describe a moving personal journey, you take your audience on that journey with you, you land the story well, with a bang, with a message (but don’t make it heavy-handed) too, and all the while you skilfully steer your audience away from despair and towards a sense of empowerment.” In Serial, the sense of empowerment we’re being offered is that of feeling on par with Koenig’s investigative journey as a non-authoritative authority on this real-life case, even when the podcast’s construction clearly indicates this isn’t so.

Serial feels like it is playing on our desire to see and hear transparent reporting. “Maybe we should get some experts on this job,” is how Koenig ends episode six, but she’s been working on the case for a year and massages and manipulates the facts into narratives and yet still presents herself as on the same level as the listeners. She’s now decided, halfway through to bring “experts” in? Hmm. In Slate editor Julia Turner’s fabulously crude and accurate words on a spoiler podcast dedicated to Serial: “These guys are so fucking wily.”

It’s no surprise that in addition to feeling suspicious about the key players in this crime mystery – predominately Syed and his accuser, Jay – we’re suspicious of how Koenig is constructing the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m devoted; it’s undeniably entertaining and I think Koenig is brilliant. Audiences are aware enough now of some of the ethical dilemmas involved here, namely the problematic nature of journalistic storytelling itself, summed up in Janet Malcolm’s creed:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Ostensibly the journalist has acknowledged their place in this story and yes, it’s their prerogative to determine the path it shall take, but the way sources and reporting are presented in this format feels particularly cunning. Serial’s implied bespoke construction almost deliberately eludes moral or ethical culpability (so far, obviously).

And then there’s the problematic nature of positioning Serial’s narrative a dead girl, TV-style drama. When announcing the spin off, Ira Glass himself stated: “Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, and you just have to hear what happens next, but with a story that’s true. And no pictures. Like House of Cards or Game of Thrones but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.” This entertainment factor leaves a bitter taste because Lee isn’t Laura Palmer, she can’t be resurrected in a fictional land of flashbacks and surreal dream sequences. Lee is real and she’s dead. Likewise the recordings of Syed in prison attesting (falsely or otherwise) his innocence are raw and emotional because they’re not scripted. At the same time, the central mystery is part of what makes Serial so compelling, it’s just in trying to keep Agatha Christie’s rules both in sight and out of mind that things become complicated. As suss as I seem about the investigation Koenig and co are producing, I’m not a conscious objector: I’m a conscious listener and fan aware that it’s an ethically murky endeavour. I’ll keep digging and listening and questioning and discussing and getting lost in Reddit holes. Because as horribly voyeuristic as it can feel, and potentially unethical as it seems, Serial is totally thrilling. That much I do know.

Originally published in SPOOK (5 November 2014).