For the last few months, it seems like almost every day there is someone new proclaiming their love for Serial on social media. “I’m hooked!” they say. “I can’t wait for next week!” or “I’m binge-listening to every episode!” When the podcast took a week off over Thanksgiving I heard more complaining about that than I did about obnoxious relatives or overcooked turkey.
Everyone wants to know if you think Adnan is guilty. Everyone wants to know what the ending will be. Everyone wants more.
At first I was scared to come out against Serial when everyone around me seems to love it so much. I wrote a first draft of this post that looks nothing like this one where I beat around the bush a lot and tried not to make waves. It wasn’t good. I can’t avoid the truth of my opinion. So I’m just going to lay it out.
The closest thing I can recall to the way people are talking about Serial is the way people talked about Gone Girl that summer it came out and the months that followed as it slowly crept through everyone’s reading list. Every few days someone would post something like “Just finished Gone Girl OMG!” and then let us know whether they’d fallen on the side of love-it or hate-it.
I can see why they elicit similar reactions. They’re both about crime and violence. They both have a mystery at their center. They both lay out the facts slowly and save important information to get revealed late in the game.
Of course there’s one important difference. One of them is fiction. One of them was written to be consumed and enjoyed and gossiped about.
The other is a real story. And even the best possible outcome still can’t make it anything but a tragic one. At best, it’s the story of a girl who was murdered and the killer who was put away. At worst, it’s the story of a girl who was murdered and an innocent man serving time in prison. Either way, there are two grieving families destroyed, communities dealing with trauma, teenagers coping with the death of a friend followed by the arrest and conviction of another. It’s full of violence and loss and sadness.
So honestly? I don’t get the excitement. I don’t get the way people gush about it with big smiles on their faces.
Yeah, I know, I’m a downer. This post is a downer. I’m not really sorry. I wanted to like it. I still listen to it. But I can’t say I enjoy it. It doesn’t put me in a good mood or make me feel excited.
It’s not that I don’t like its style of storytelling. I value investigative reporting, I value storytelling, I value exactly what Serial stands for. I direct a show that has at its heart the sharing of personal stories. I value it a lot.
It’s not that I don’t like dark subject matter. It’s my thing. When I choose stories, these are the stories I choose. I’m currently obsessed with Black Mirror, a show that’s currently streaming on Netflix that is one of the darkest things I can recall seeing.
I can’t put my finger exactly on what’s wrong, but I have a general sense.
I don’t like that they use the same devices that fiction writers use to up the suspense in a story about real people. I don’t like that the reporter behind the podcast involves herself so heavily in the story, I feel like I know more about her than I do any of the people in it. I don’t like that there are interviews with people whose lives were affected by this that surely lasted for hours but that we get a sentence or two in a soundbite. I don’t like that some of the most important people in this story don’t say a word. I don’t like how people talk about it as if it’s an unbiased telling when it’s a more distilled and more incomplete version than the trials that occurred. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the way the podcast has talked about Jay, about Hae’s family, about Adnan’s family, about the defense attorney as if this is a story that belongs to all of us and that their character is for us to judge when we have so little to go on, really.
A lot of how I feel is based on my experience as a criminal attorney and the feelings that I can’t shake from that time. I get that. I believe in the right to cross-examine a witness and that there’s two sides to every story. I hate hearing hour after hour beating up on about Jay and then a single sentence that the jury believed him as if this presents an even picture.
I know that when the person who’s accused gets a chance to tell their story, you almost always feel more sympathetic towards them, whether they say they didn’t or not, whether they’re lying or not. That’s one of the reasons I like being on the side of the defense.
I know that our trial system is brutally unfair to people who are actually innocent. This is something I had to deal with and something I’ve attempted to cope with, even though I don’t accept it.
And I know that once the trial ends, the odds that things will go another direction are slim to none.
I spent years fighting for people, crying for what they lost, worrying about whether I would fail them. This story, like many true stories of violence, brings much of that flooding back. And so it’s hard for me to watch people giddy with excitement about someone’s story that is actually really happening. I can’t imagine what it must be like for Jay right now, for the community where this all happened, for the people whose lives touch this story. It makes me feel a little dirty, knowing that we’re all gleefully sniffing around an old wound.
The armchair detective is all well and good in a story. But in real life? It can be terribly destructive. There are reddit threads investigating this crime the same way they investigated the Boston bombing, and I think we all remember how badly that went.
Serial is not the only offender, of course. I feel kind of gross whenever I read In Cold Blood, which hasn’t stopped me from reading it a few times, and watching 2 movies about Truman Capote writing it, and reading countless articles about all the things Capote deliberately got wrong and the liberties he took for the sake of telling a good story.
Nonfiction by its very nature takes other people’s lives and actions and puts them on display. Maybe part of my discomfort is that I feel most comfortable telling my own story. I talk about my children because they make up so much of my life right now. But I have shared virtually no details about my marriage or my divorce because it’s not a story I own outright. I don’t know how to reconcile the drive I feel to help us all feel less alone in the world by sharing personal stories with the havoc that can be wreaked by being truly honest.
I’m not saying I’m right to feel this way and other people are wrong to feel another way. It’s just how I feel. It’s the gut reaction I have. And when I tried to write about it nicely, it just didn’t work. Like I said, being honest is a big deal to me. And I’m writing this even though I suspect it will make people annoyed or upset.
It’s complicated. Telling the story is complicated, hearing the story is complicated. I just wish the way we talked about Serial reflected that more.