In Its New Episode, "Serial" Can't Catch Up With Its Own Story

The blockbuster podcast Serial made Adnan Syed a household name. But its influence on true crime reporting isn’t so clear-cut.

Early Monday afternoon, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn announced that Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of his former girlfriend Hae-Min Lee and has been serving a life sentence ever since, was free to leave prison. “At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed,” the judge declared.

Syed left the courthouse to cheers and a throng of reporters and cameras, all demanding to know how he felt about this remarkable turn of events. With Syed’s conviction overturned (he will serve home detention for now), Baltimore county prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or forgo charges altogether. The latter prospect seems far more likely.

Vacated convictions often arise because of the work by defense lawyers and investigators. And indeed, Syed's lawyers, advocates, and friends, chief among them Rabia Chaudry, the attorney and advocate who had initially brought Syed's case to the public’s attention, worked hard to vacate his sentence. (Full disclosure: Chaudry contributed to an anthology I edited, coming next summer. We were also both guests of the podcast The Argument discussing all things true crime.)

Syed won a new trial in 2016, which led to a Maryland appeals court upholding the decision and setting aside the original conviction. Then the state's highest court reversed course in 2018, keeping the murder conviction on the books and denying Syed another chance to prove his innocence in court after all. A motion filed by prosecutors last week detailed how months of investigations uncovered two potential “alternative suspects” along with key evidence that should have been disclosed, but had not, to Syed’s lawyers all the way back in 1999. Along with “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” and preliminary DNA results that did not point to Syed, prosecutors sought to vacate the conviction “in the interest of justice and fairness” as they had lost confidence in its integrity.

But the reason why Syed’s overturned conviction made headlines, of course, is because of the podcast Serial. Syed's release marks the latest chapter in an odyssey that by rights began with the murder of 18-year-old Lee, but really took off when This American Life, the venerable WBEZ radio storytelling program, decided to turn reporter Sarah Koenig's real-time investigation of the case into a podcast “told week by week,” as each episode announced. The first installment arrived with some fanfare in October 2014; by the end of the year, Serial had morphed into a smash hit and bona fide cultural phenomenon, one that broadened the audience for the genre of true crime and exploded the possibilities of what the genre could do.

So it was expected, and inevitable, that Koenig was in the courtroom Monday covering Syed’s vacated conviction, and that there would be a new 16-minute episode of Serial in millions of podcast listeners’ feeds the following morning. Listening to that episode was a deeply strange experience. It felt quaint, like a time capsule in which we were still stuck in fall 2014. True crime has evolved as a genre, for good and for ill. But you wouldn’t know it from Serial’s latest episode.

When Serial debuted nearly eight years ago, true crime was by no means moribund — it is a perennially popular genre dating back centuries, as human nature makes us gravitate toward rubbernecking at the most lurid stories and likely always will. Dateline, 20/20, and Forensic Files attracted sizable audiences. Documentaries by Errol Morris and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had helped spotlight or bring about wrongful arrests and convictions. Ann Rule’s books were bestseller list staples. There was plenty of mass-market appeal, but the genre was not considered prestigious.

That changed with Serial. Episodes of the podcast (including its second season, on a different topic) were downloaded more than 340 million times as of 2018. Those who had never imagined being consumers of true crime (but happily tuned in to This American Life) not only listened avidly to each episode, but also even felt compelled to participate in some form. The podcast followed a traditional, top-down reporting approach, where Koenig, as the host, guided listeners through the evidential inconsistencies, unreliable witnesses, and reasonable doubts that cast Syed's conviction (and life sentence) in a new light. But because the show was reported in real time, listeners could participate in sleuthing of their own. Serial, in other words, was merely the first word, not the last or even the authoritative one, on the case against Adnan Syed.

Serial, in other words, was merely the first word, not the last or even the authoritative one, on the case against Adnan Syed.

All one had to do was log onto Reddit or any other social media platform or message board of their choice. Listeners picked apart the case, some even going so far as to drive by the houses of witnesses (or even attempt to contact them directly). There were deeper criticisms of how Serial investigated the case. A major one was that in prioritizing the serialized approach, the podcast failed to fully reckon with systemic inequities of the criminal legal system — specifically, the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment that radiated throughout the police investigation and courtroom proceedings. Koenig’s first-person narration, meant to present herself as approachable and fallible, instead revealed the inherent naivete of her perspective as a white woman reporter. By failing to fully delve into the ethnic backgrounds of both Hae-Min Lee and Adnan Syed, Serial missed an opportunity to explore the ramifications of Lee’s murder and Syed’s conviction on the Korean American and Pakistani communities in Baltimore and beyond.

These criticisms only became more pointed in the intervening years, as the appetite for true crime started to bifurcate between those craving and conducting rigorous journalism and those in search of community. The palate for crime stories broadened, emphasizing larger societal issues and finding meaningful alternatives to “missing white women” narratives. The high point remains the second season of APM Reports’ In the Dark (which, sadly, will not see a third), hosted by Madeleine Baran, whose reporting on the many trials of Curtis Flowers for a crime he likely did not commit led to the Supreme Court vacating his conviction on the grounds of jury selection racial bias.

People more interested in true crime storytelling as a means of community had many outlets to choose from. Thus, the advent, beginning in 2016, of the “Murderinos,” avid listeners of the chat show–style podcast My Favorite Murder (as well as its many imitators), who gravitated toward the genre in order to address longstanding fears — their own, as well as what's embedded in the culture — and feel both empowered and less alone.

Slaking the appetite for true crime content became the full-time endeavor of authors, podcasters, documentarians, and others already in or parachuting into the true crime space. The cottage industry of conventions, conferences, merchandise, and meetups also created the “true crime personality,” in which the plight of the missing and murdered becomes a means of amassing fame and building a brand. The transformation of real-life trauma and pain for entertainment is already a deeply uncomfortable topic — but when one adds the possibility of bad actors or even grift, the ramifications are all the more devastating.

As the true crime genre expanded and doubled back upon itself since Serial, Chaudry, the attorney, advocate, and family friend who brought Syed’s case to Koenig’s attention, only grew more frustrated with how the podcast treated the case. So she decided to counter Serial’s version of the narrative. Both Chaudry’s 2017 book, Adnan’s Story, and the 2019 HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed included substantial material that had not been included in the original podcast. Until this spring, Chaudry also cohosted a podcast, Undisclosed, that highlighted all of the ways in which Hae-Min Lee’s murder had been improperly investigated and subsequently helped facilitate at least 10 additional wrongful convictions.

There is little sense (or criticism) of the fandom aspects that govern interest in true crime these days.

Almost none of these criticisms or parallel investigations and media made it into this newest episode of Serial, though. Chaudry is mentioned, but almost perfunctorily, long after Koenig has gone through a brisk, almost by-the-numbers roundup of what’s transpired in the past eight years. There is little sense (or criticism) of the fandom aspects that govern interest in true crime these days. That Pandora’s box opened years ago, but Koenig doesn’t — or pretends not to — acknowledge this.

The quaint sense I felt listening to the episode had as much to do with content as it did with style. What felt fresh from a sound engineering and production standpoint in fall 2014 sounds awfully dated now. Granted, this fate befalls many an innovator who inspires numerous copycats and parodies, as Serial did. One need only watch the hilarious 2017 Netflix parody American Vandal or chortle at Tina Fey’s depiction of the stop-at-nothing podcast host Cinda Canning on the Hulu television series Only Murders in the Building for further understanding.

The episode does at least address why Syed’s vacated conviction is so infuriating: that the evidence underpinning the motion by prosecutors “was known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999.” Koenig concludes at the episode’s end, “It’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness, because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct.” She would later add in a New York Times interview, “There is nothing unusual about the presence of these systemic problems in Adnan’s case. Nothing.”

Just as the original season of Serial came to an ambiguous ending, so too does this new episode. Just as Serial marked the beginning of the true crime moment we've been in ever since, so too does this new episode mark an inflection point, though I would be loath to call it an endpoint. Because the same problems still apply as they did in 2020, when it appeared that the massive protests after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor might bring about real change. Serial killers are still glamorized. The media still, too often, parrot the police party line. And catharsis still comes at the expense of Black and brown bodies.

True crime will have another moment. There will be more developments in the Adnan Syed case. What must also not be lost is that the family of Hae-Min Lee has been living with open emotional wounds that have been perpetually exacerbated by the intense media interest, the vertigo-inducing legal developments, and the participatory element of internet sleuths for more than two decades. As her brother, Young Lee, said at Monday’s hearing, “Every day, when I think it’s over, whenever I think it’s over, or it’s ended, it’s always come back. … This is not a podcast for me, this is real life.” ●

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