The first episode of Serial begins with an operator announcing a collect call from Adnan Syed to Sarah Koenig. Syed is an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility. Koenig is a producer for This American Life and former Baltimore Sun reporter.
Season one of Serial, the new podcast from This American Life, explores the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior murdered in 1999. About a month after her disappearance her body was found in a park near her home outside Baltimore. Lee had been strangled and buried in a shallow grave. A couple weeks after this, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested and quickly convicted for the crime. On the surface, this is a tragic but not particularly interesting story. Dig deeper, as Koenig does throughout the series, the story of Lee's murder becomes something else.
Over its ten or eleven episodes, available each week at serialpodcast.org and wherever most podcasts are found, Serial delves into the world of Lee and Syed in 1999. This is the world of Woodlawn High School, of teenage love and late 90's pop music, and of the complications surrounding Lee's murder. Syed is convicted largely on the testimony of a former friend, Jay, as there is no physical evidence tying Syed to the crime. Jay's story changes but is enough to convict Adnan. Koenig incorporates audio excerpts from Jay's 1999 police interviews detailing a cold blooded murder. At the same time, Koenig presents her own conversations with those who knew Adnan, creating an alternate picture of who the convicted murderer really is. Someone in this story is clearly not telling the truth.
As Serial continues, more and more questions arise. Koenig herself is not done investigating, so the resolution and length of the season remain unknown. The first episode gives an overview of the case against Syed and his alibi for the day Lee disappeared. He doesn't remember where he was that day, but it turns out somebody does. His friend's sister recalls seeing Syed in a public library when Lee disappeared, where he often went to check his email and pass time before track practice. The Serial website includes her letters on the subject, letters which were never presented in trial. More relevant documents will be added as the season progresses and there is a lot to draw from, including the files of Syed's disbarred defense attorney.
The listener is side by side with Koenig every step of the way. We hear her interviews and personal commentary, we share in her passion for learning what happened the January morning Hae Min Lee was killed. It's easy to join in Koenig's desire to learn more, the case is fascinating. The second episode explores the relationship between Lee and Syed, complicating the prosecution's portrayal of the couple and Syed's motive, but also Adnan's own defense. Koenig includes her opinions throughout the series while presenting all sides of the story.
I can't tell you how this mystery will resolve. I know Syed remains imprisoned, hoping for appeal, but I have no idea what else Koenig will discover. I don't know what the truth is, I may never, but I know I will continue listening to Serial. The story and the depth and honesty with which it is told is enthralling, and like nothing else in the podcast or radio world today. There are television shows with similar episodic depictions of one crime over the course of a season, but they are always fiction. Koenig found a gripping story of a murder populated with real characters and mystery.