The most buzzed-about crime show of the year wasn't on TV. It's Serial, a true-crime drama unfolding in weekly installments produced by the people behind This American Life. And it became a cultural phenomenon, with podcasts devoted to discussing the podcast and endless conspiracy theories about what's really happening on the show.
Here's our best attempt at explaining the Serial phenomenon – and if you can't keep everyone straight, here's a guide to keep track of the many, many people who play a role in the unfolding mystery.
1) What is Serial?
Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, dedicated to telling a single, true story in about a dozen weekly episodes. It debuted this fall and has been the no. 1 podcast on iTunes virtually ever since. The Wall Street Journal's Caroline O'Donovan said Serial told her it's averaging 1 million weekly downloads — about as many as This American Life, the most popular podcast in the US. That's also roughly as many people as watched the most recent Mad Men season premiere. (By the end of the season, it was averaging more than 1.5 million listeners per episode.)
The podcast's first season is a true crime story about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland. Hae's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old Woodlawn student, was arrested, convicted of strangling Hae, and is serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison. Adnan's conviction was based largely on the testimony of one man: an acquaintance named Jay, who described how he helped Adnan carry out the logistics of his murderous plot and later bury Hae's body.
But Adnan's family and friends convinced he didn't do it. And Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial, is exploring what really happened 15 years ago when Hae Min Lee died.
Koenig was reporting and recording new episodes for as long as the show went on, and wasn't certain where the narrative would end up until the end of its 12-episode run.
2) Why are so many people obsessed with this show?
Serial combines two lowbrow things people love — true crime and high school drama — and does it with NPR-level respectability. In other words, Serial is Gossip Girl meets Dateline crossed with This American Life. (Koenig is a producer for This American Life, and the premiere episode of "Serial" aired there.)
The podcast's creators say it was explicitly inspired by HBO and Netflix dramas. "You get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week," as This American Life host Ira Glass described Serial in July. "Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you're driving."
Combine the critical attention those TV dramas receive with the obsessive theorizing that unsolved mysteries attract, and you have the response to Serial in a nutshell.
3) Do we know how Serial will end?
Serial has since ended. But if you haven't listened, it doesn't spoil much to know that throughout the show, it doesn't seem to be leading to a decisive verdict on Syed's guilt or innocence. Koenig said repeatedly she was following the narrative wherever it takes her. That's not the neat ending we expect from a scripted TV drama. But, as NPR TV critic Linda Holmes points out, that doesn't mean it can't be a satisfying narrative all the same — and indeed, the final episode brought a remarkable amount of closure.
4) Could Serial get Adnan Syed out of prison?
Koenig, for one, doesn't think so. "I'm not sure that what I'm doing would translate into some sort of legal remedy for Adnan," she told Rolling Stone. "And even if it did, I don't worry about that anyway. The only thing I really, really worry about is: Am I being fair at every step of the way?"
Journalists and journalism students have successfully won new trials for the wrongfully convicted before. But the most successful cases have turned on forensic evidence — old DNA samples that can be retested, for example. So far, nothing like that has turned up in Syed's case.
Adnan's hope now seems to rest on getting a new trial based on an argument that his lawyer, who was later disbarred, represented him ineffectively. If Adnan wins his argument for a new trial, it's possible that whatever Koenig finds out could play a role. But ineffective assistance of counsel is a tough argument to win in court: lawyers have been judged effective even if they were mentally ill, asleep in court, or drunk.
5) Just how obsessed are Serial listeners, anyway?
There is an entire side conspiracy theory about the sponsor's message at the beginning of the show, where one person pronounces MailChimp as "Mail… kimp?" Did someone tell her to do it?!??!?!?!
whoa, found out why the person at the beginning of Serial mispronounces "Mail Chimp" pic.twitter.com/TxW9DNEtBp— Achilles Stamatelaky (@astamate) November 6, 2014
Vocativ looked into it, and it turns out the mispronouncer is a 13-year-old girl.
Reddit's Serial-themed subreddit has transcripts, a list of characters, a map of locations, and thousands of obsessive listeners talking over their theories. Spoilers abound; they're doing some sleuthing of their own. If you don't want to go that deep, the Daily Dot rounded up six of the strangest and most interesting conspiracy theories.
6) OK, I'm sold. How do I listen?
If you have an iPhone, you can use the built-in Podcasts app to subscribe, and new episodes will be downloaded automatically. You can do the same with Stitcher for Android phones.
Aside from the hourlong premiere and finale, most Serial episodes range from 30 to 45 minutes. In all, it will take you 8.5 hours of listening to finish the season, although there are some shortcuts to getting the gist without listening to every episode.
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