A road disappearing into the fog.
A road disappearing into the fog.
Part of the hook of the fine podcast Serial, spun off from This American Life and hosted by Sarah Koenig, is that it feels exactly like the grungy, procedurally exacting, multi-episode stories that are so popular right now on television. It feels so much like a great series on Showtime or HBO; it has the flavor of the anticipation and blind alleys and you-gotta-see-this social anticipation of True Detective or Fargo. (Slate has, rather amusingly, created a separate podcast about the Serial podcast that literally creates a new episode to analyze each new episode.) Buzzfeed, in fact, called it "The Year's Best New Crime Drama."
But of course, it's not that. It's not a "crime drama." It's reporting on a real case — that of Adnan Syed, who has been in prison for almost 15 years for the murder of his girlfriend in 1999, when he was 17. And according to the show's description of itself, it's not telling a story that began with an ending in mind: "We'll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won't know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us." It's a very good show, and it's been very well received, and it may very well wind up making a lot of people angry.
Consider the increasingly familiar rhythms of pieces written about the show, which invariably try to talk about story and try to talk about art and try to talk about the production process but cannot help poking and prodding for confirmation that there are revelations to come — that there is a plan, no matter how many times Koenig clarifies that story-wise, ending-wise, conclusion-wise, there is probably not the thing you are thinking of when you say "a plan." In Vulture, Koenig was asked, "Do you have some idea [of whether Adnan Syed is guilty]? It feels like you must know which way you are leaning by now." In Rolling Stone, she was asked, "What do you have planned for the way you want it to come together in the end?"
Back at Slate — where the Serial obsession runs, to put it mildly, deep — Hanna Rosin wrote an entire piece analyzing whether, when Koenig claims she doesn't have certainty over the case herself, she's just holding out on us, and seemingly trying to talk herself into thinking it's okay if she's not lying and simply doesn't know. Rosin reminds us that Mike Pesca "begged" Koenig on his show The Gist to offer some kind of resolution: "Don't let this be a contemplation on the nature of the truth."
(Ohhhhh, Mike Pesca. Ohhhhh, buddy, I'm almost positive it's going to be a contemplation on the nature of the truth. I hope you're ready.)
We are — and I say "we," collectively, referring to people who follow serial stories over weeks and months — not notorious for our graceful acceptance of ambiguity, messy closings and questions that aren't answered. It is common for people who follow a fictional story of this kind to expect that every single thread will be followed to its end, every piece of evidence will be tied to all the others, and that if a story ends in uncertainty, it will end in meaningful uncertainty — that is, in uncertainty that in and of itself is saying something greater about how you never know. You don't just not learn what happened because it's really hard to tell what happened, the way you can at the end of a stretch of research or reporting.
Of course, we should, on an intellectual level, be completely different in our approach to a true story. We should understand that the expectations have to be different, that Koenig is not Damon Lindelof or Veena Sud, and that finale thinkpieces will make absolutely no sense if they rely upon how satisfying we found the story or how many coincidences there were and make that the measuring stick of quality. And we are that way, consciously, and perhaps we will be, emotionally, when we get there. But if we are — if we can acknowledge that it can be a fascinating trip to take even if in the end the little questions, let alone the biggest questions, are left in ambiguity or even infuriating bafflement — then why couldn't you write a fictional story that way?
If we believe that there is more to the value of this story than solving the case and all the mini-cases inside it, then it raises this question: Why couldn't there be a satisfying serial drama that defiantly refused to connect any dots and was also about the frustrating way you sometimes cannot tell what happened? Surely, we don't listen to Serial with the idea in mind that we are grudgingly accepting its inevitable uncertainties while knowing it would be a better show if we could be confident it would end either with a dramatic confession or with a joyful exoneration, trimmed down so that only the important stuff was included, so that only the questions for which there were answers were ever even asked. Surely, we don't begrudge it its messiness and mysterious spare parts that fit nowhere; we embrace its messiness and we consider those spare parts to be colorful. Why couldn't we do the same with a piece of fiction?
There have been other documentaries about crimes, to be sure, that hesitate to draw firm conclusions about the truth. But the very nature of this — serial -- encourages you to see its similarities to familiar narrative forms of storytelling that would be expected to end in a way that was intentional and structured, where there is an authorial control over events. And while the uncertainties of the underlying story don't mean that the episodes and the series aren't structured (just the opposite, really), they're not structured in the way people wanted the end of Lost or True Detective or Fargo to be structured. There is a chance, a good chance, every chance, that this story is going to end in frustration and discomfort, maybe in near equipoise, and it will be nonsensical to blame for that writers who didn't know what they were doing.
What's good about this wrinkle, and what seems healthy about it, is that it raises the question of what stories are for. Must there be a lesson or a moral? Must we sense a particular idea about life at the end, and can it be futility? If you raise a question, do you have to answer it? In real life, of course, Chekhov's gun need not come to anything in the third act just because it was shown in the first. If this makes a good true story but would not make a good piece of dramatic fiction, why is that? Assuming people do find the ending satisfying despite what almost must be its messiness, is it possible that a piece of serial crime reporting with no conclusion will point to the idea that we've perhaps become overly obsessed in judging an entire piece of storytelling on whether we get the perfectly symmetrical, flawless, balanced, wry, doubt-drowning ending we deserve?
This story, after all, affects practically none of us directly. This is not reporting on world events or the broader culture; this is narrowing down to this one story, taking it apart the way you might hunt through letters in your own attic. To be sure, it makes you think about police tactics and the criminal system and the fragility of memory (there's a great moment in one episode that calls to mind some of what commentators on the situation in Ferguson have said about the differences between different people's experiences with police and whether or not they would ever call upon the police for help).
But the popularity of the show places it in a very complex position, as it hasn't yet survived its first landing. And as the producers of countless dramas — crime and otherwise — will tell you, if you don't stick the landing according to rules you may not have ever agreed to abide by, the reaction can be swift and severe.