I’ve been trying to write about Serial, the new episodic podcast from the folks behind This American Life, but I can’t get my thoughts into a coherent narrative. I’ve realised that this is for a few reasons.
Firstly, i’m distracted by what I imagine lots and lots of others are saying about it. I have things to say against their views but have the problem that I haven’t read anything they’ve written or listened to anything they’ve said. I’m going to proceed as if this is fine. As if my railing against imagined or assumed opinions will somehow have more truth than a carefully reasoned fisking of each and every blog post I’ve been paging past for the last 5 or 6 weeks. Truth is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Secondly, my thoughts about Serial aren’t coherent, in that I have strong views about some quite distinct aspects of it and the reaction to it, and the rest not so much. Anyway, coherence is over-rated, I hope, and ambiguity reigns. Ambiguity is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Thirdly, my thoughts are much less about what Serial is then they are about what Serial isn’t. And it’s quite possible that everyone else out there agrees with me about what Serial isn’t. I may be stating the obvious and uncovering nothing. The opposite of Serial is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Still, I need something to pin my thoughts to and, as this is a murder story, perhaps bullets will have to do.
- I think Serial is great. I’m compelled and intrigued by it. It’s a clever, revealing and provocative piece of documentary story-telling.
- It’s a mistake to think of Serial as a radical new approach to podcasting or, indeed, storytelling. I’d been struggling to explain this until Linda Holmes, the always on-point host of NPR’s ‘Pop Culture Happy Hour’ put it perfectly this week: “If you think Serial is like an HBO show, you’re taking Ira Glass for granted. It’s This American Life – only longer.”
- And so certainly one of the things that has been irking me is the arrivistes suddenly getting excited, not about the format, audio is audio and all media is now essentially on-demand, but about the content. I recognise fully that this is a distasteful sentiment. I include it here as it’s part of the evidence, even if it looks bad for me.
- This American Life takes this approach all the time, and it unearths amazing stories and revealing vignettes all the time. It also unearths and pares down and bolts together reports from strange places the news media rarely go. If you’re sceptical, Google ‘Dr Gilmer’ or ‘Carmen Segarra’ and knock yourself out.
- Much of the debate around Serial seems, from what I can gather, to be around whether or not there will be a conclusion to the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As an aspiration this seems both futile and short-sighted. What Sarah Koenig and her fellow This American Life producers do for a living is take a story, build a heap from its fragments, and then attempt to piece these shards together to create something that looks like it might be a coherent narrative. That’s why they have found this case so perplexing. Had there been a clear cut sense of what had happened, they would have drawn their conclusion very quickly and this might not even have made a single segment for their regular gig. Instead they have not and in chasing down the details of the crime, they have instead traced the outline of the act of murder, only to find that it’s perpetrator is absent.
- They do this all the time. They are searching for a narrative, not always for a truth. Ambiguity is part of the truth of what they do, when they get it right. They don’t always and they’ve been in trouble before. In the last couple of years they have retracted stories that they had accepted verbatim (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction) and been forced to defend reports against accusations of gross errors (http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/03/22/this-american-life-features-error-riddled-story/193215). Commentators, including Harry Shearer, host of Le Show, have criticised them for privileging piecing together a good story above reporting the facts.
- But this approach is perfect for a crime story like this one. As anyone who has been close to the centre of a crime story, most likely as a juror, will know, there are no truths, there are barely facts that can be established without contest. When, after one or two or one hundred days of testimony (let’s not call it ‘evidence’) a jury sit down to deliberate, what they ponder is not the truth, but which version of the events described they find most plausible. I sat as juror on a murder trial once and if you’ve never done that then take my word for it, we were left to piece together an outcome based on our collective notes of what we considered important during the preceding 7 days of testimony. Half the people in the room hadn’t even made any notes, but were happy to sit and defend their gut instinct as to whether the accused was innocent or guilty. The truth bounced between us like a dizzy pinball for 24 hours and then dropped into one of the available gutters and was delivered as our verdict. It was, it had to be, our best guess.
- Ultimately it’s a mistake to think of this as a crime story. Serial is about ambiguity and the unattainability of truth. The murder of Hae Lee is the stuff it’s made from, but ultimately this is just material to be shifted and sifted and shaped and reshaped. Witnesses and testimonies are contradictory, partial and unresolvable. The point of the story is that you cannot get a single, truthful view through a shattered prism.
- It’s also pretty short-sighted to describe Serial as a step forward in crime reporting or story-telling. Both crime fiction and non-fiction have been portraying, trading in and pondering stories which conclude in a strangled mess or loose ends for decades. Also, without wishing to sound all prissy there’s something distasteful about commentators queuing up to describe the ‘rich and fully-formed cast of characters’. These are real people, not ciphers to be dragged out and pored over. One of them was murdered.
- And so finally, anyone expecting resolution within the 12 episodes of a podcast simply hasn’t been thinking. What we’re hearing each week is a thread of the story as they have been able to tease it out so far. These strands are being pulled out from the great mass of material they have collected and sorted and carefully presented. If, in the course of this process, they had come across one thread which was tied around a smoking gun proving that Adnan definitely committed the murder, or a piece of evidence which suggested that he should be exonerated, or indeed some evidence that clearly indicated that some other individual was likely to have been responsible, then they would have had an obligation to act upon it and the story would not have waited for the end of their run. If that had happened, we’d know. Koenig and co may come to a view at the end of all this, but they won’t solve the puzzle. And, essentially, that’s what the justice system does too. It sifts through the story, asks members of the public to come to a view and then coalesces behind this compromise view, its best guess at what most probably happened.
So, Serial. Enjoy it and you will learn things along the way. Principle among these is that there are no final truths. Sometimes all we have are our stories.