The Pros and Cons of the Serial Narrative

For the last month I’ve been addicted to Serial, the This American Life podcast spin-off covering one story from week to week. The first story is the case of a murder that happened fifteen years ago and the case for and against the man convicted of the the crime. Each week we’re treated to an in-depth analysis of some aspect of the crime, from high-school relationships, to the layout of the park where the victim was buried, to recreating the route of the prosecution’s timeline.

This episode marked the halfway point for the season and in some ways it feels like we have enough to have formed some kind of an opinion as to whether or not Adnan Syed (our supposed killer) is guilty or innocent and what it would mean if he was either. My own opinion is mixed along the lines of whether he should have been convicted based on the evidence and whether he actually did it.

I trust the This American Life people to tell me a good story, and on that they have delivered, even if it is likely to be as unresolved as many of those Dateline true crime specials. It’s definitely interesting as someone who writes mysteries to realize how mushy real-life cases can be: conflicting accounts, evidence that could mean one thing or another, evolving understandings of the validity of technology as evidence, etc.

But the week-to-week format is getting a little frustrating. With a deep focus on one aspect in every 30-45min episode it can often feel like we’ve only added one or two pieces of information to our appraisal of the case. It still feels that there’s a lot being held back, even after this latest episode that tries to lay out all the reasons why the killer looks guilty. If anything it’s giving us a sense of the way a real investigation would work, you spend a lot of time learning one or two pieces of information, and then you have to figure out how that fits into the building narrative you’ve made of the case.

And Sarah Koenig, our journalistic host and guide through this whole tale, is a bit of an unreliable narrator. Not in the sense that I believe she’s lying to us at any point. She actually lays her vulnerabilities bare in each episode, her shifting opinions, her uncertainty, areas she pursued that don’t play out. One thing in particular that struck me in this last episode were some awkward conversations with Adnan with some long silences that other people might have edited out. These give the listener a sense for the true flow of the conversation and how some statements or questions can stop and make you think.

Probably I’m most frustrated that I don’t just have this whole thing to listen to now. If this were an audiobook it would be like missing the last six disks of the story. But since the episodes are being produced as the show airs, I’ll have to wait patiently each Thursday for a new bite. And I’m also trying to resist the temptation to listen to each episode before I can bring it home for the little red haired girl, who has been listening along with me. In the meantime I’ve been listening to each episode repeatedly trying to absorb every detail (even to the point of e-mailing the show with a question about cell phone timing).

The truth is, no matter my frustrations with individual episodes, how long this is all taking, moments when I feel like I’m only getting part of the story, I’m going to keep listening. On that at least, Serial and the This American Life team have succeeded again.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Pros and Cons of the Serial Narrative

  1. It is frustrating to only get part of the story – but we stayed glued, anyway! I love reading about your own challenges in writing, also. Thanks for your work. BTW – I love This American Life, too. They certainly do a great job!

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