A “This American Life” Spinoff

by Kayla Samoy

It’s been nearly 15 years since high school student Hae Min Lee was murdered sometime between 2:15 p.m. and 2:36 p.m. on January 13, 1999. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. But all these years later, the details of the case are still unclear.

This American Life’s first spinoff Serial is taking long form radio journalism to a new level by dedicating an entire season to exploring this complicated story of love, sex, lies and murder set in Baltimore, Maryland.

Every Thursday, Serial host Sarah Koenig leads us through another piece of Lee’s murder. Her voice is casual and relatable, she’s like a very smart and articulate friend of yours giving you the latest drama. This story just happens to involve manual strangulation and a body dumped in a park.

The first episode of the podcast, titled “The Alibi,” also aired on This American Life. It’s the longest episode of the series so far, closing in on an hour and sets up the basics of our story.

Lee disappears one snowy day after school. Six-weeks later Syed is arrested. He claims innocence, but can’t exactly offer up a solid alibi. The episode examines human memory and the difficulties of accounting for your time – can you remember exactly where you were six weeks ago? – and investigates a witness that could potentially vouch for Syed’s whereabouts. It’s a significant amount of information to take in, but Koenig’s casual narration keeps the story from getting overwhelming.

The next episodes focus on other particulars of the story – Lee and Syed’s break-up, Leakin Park where Lee’s body was found, inconsistencies in the prosecution’s lead witness’s testimony. Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis even goes so far as to try and recreate the entire route Syed supposedly took on the day of Lee’s death.

This recreation is one of my favorite moments of the series so far. The sequence comes to life with all the small sound effects woven into the voiceover. The sounds of the last announcements of the school day, the school bell ringing and the car door slamming shut immerses the listener into Koenig and Chivvis’s recreation, pulling us into the journey right alongside them.

Serial presents itself in a much more serious light than This American Life, and it has to, given the subject matter. Gone are the funky songs of This American Life, replaced instead with an orchestral score filled with high-pitched staccato piano and deep rhythmic guitar that builds up the intensity and drama.

I’m a fan of radio. I worked in radio for six months as an intern at Arizona Public Media, Tucson’s local NPR affiliate. Yet I’ve found myself missing episodes of This American Life if I got too busy or I wasn’t particularly interested in the week’s theme.

Serial has tapped into what makes narrative television so good, giving the listeners just enough to make them feel as if there’s progress in the story, but leaving enough questions unanswered to ensure they come back another week.

It’s addicting and engrossing. I’ve become invested in the stories of these real people. I want to know, in the end, if Syed really did kill Lee or if it was all an elaborate set-up or an extreme failure of the judicial system.

Koenig has been working on the series for over a year. Yet at this point, it’s unclear if even she even knows the ending of the series and whether or not Syed is innocent. Some worry that the case won’t be solved in the end.

When the first episode finished playing on This American Life, Ira Glass comes on and says one of his favorite things is the fluidity of the story.

“[Sarah Koenig] and Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvas, who are working with her on this, they have all flipped back and forth, over and over, in their thinking of whether Adnan committed the murder,” Glass said. “And when you listen to the series, you experience those flips with them.”

So in the end, maybe it won’t even matter if we never truly find out the details of the murder. The complicated and captivating journey Serial is taking us on, allowing us to play detective alongside Koenig and slowly uncovering the facts of the murder, is an experience worth taking, no matter the ending.

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