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Why ‘Serial’ is a breakout hit

As television critics know well, writing about any story that is told episode by episode is a tremendous challenge: A story you love may turn on you, or a show you were disappointed in may rise to the high standards you set for it. But that does not keep us from trying, and two weeks ago, Jay Caspian Kang decided to weigh in on “Serial,” a new podcast from WBEZ Chicago, which also produces “This American Life.” Kang suggested that podcast creator Sarah Koenig had exhibited a lack of cultural understanding in telling her story, an investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school senior Hae Min Lee, and into Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing her.

“This certainly doesn’t mean that people should only write and report about the communities they know or are born into, but if we judge lengthy narratives by their thoughtfulness, the depth of their inquiry and their care, ‘Serial’ lacks the hard-earned and moving reflections on race found in [Darcy] Frey’s book [‘The Last Shot‘], or, in, say, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s ‘Random Family,’ ” Kang writes. Instead, the listener is asked to simply trust Koenig’s translation of two distinct immigrant cultures. I can think of no better definition of white privilege in journalism than that.”

Kang’s criticisms make sense if the point of “Serial” is for Koenig, her colleagues and us to understand Syed, Lee and the milieu in which they grew up as well as the circumstances under which Lee died and Syed went to prison. But while what exactly “Serial” is does seem to change from episode to episode, binge-listening to the podcast does leave the impression that the real inquiry is into Koenig’s own mind. And that, I think, is precisely why “Serial” is both a massive hit and a piece of work that leaves some listeners uncomfortable.

If devoting a multi-episode podcast to Koenig’s opinions and feelings sounds awfully solipsistic, it is worth acknowledging that the process Koenig is going through in “Serial” is very similar to ones the rest of us conduct every day. As I wrote in my chat yesterday, an enormous volume of public discourse now consists of social positioning on the question of others’ guilt or innocence: Do we think Bill Cosby is a serial rapist? If not, why not? If so, which allegation convinced us, and how much earlier did we believe his accusers than people who only reluctantly acknowledge the allegations now?

Koenig is not trying to determine whether a very famous person is guilty or innocent. Instead, she is trying to make up her mind about Syed and Jay, the prosecution witness who described himself as an “ex-friend” of Syed’s and whose testimony proved critical to putting Syed in prison.

Maybe there is something cruel or exploitative about dissecting these private figures in public. But it is because Jay and Syed are not immediately recognizable figures that they make for such an intriguing inquiry. We do not have prior associations with them that we need to weigh in assessing their guilt or innocence. Based on the evidence Koenig has presented so far, they do not clearly stand in for larger ideas, like the possibility that celebrity can inoculate you from prosecution.

We are not pressed to reach a conclusion of our own, for fear of appearing soft on sexual assault or insufficiently committed to the idea of due process. Instead, we can simply watch Koenig mull over these possibilities.

The format of “Serial” means that we can watch Koenig encounter new information and feel herself shift in response to it. This happens to all of us, but Koenig is documenting the arc of her own thoughts. We see her grapple with the same kinds of preconceptions that come up in our own assessment of guilt or innocence. Would only a killer say this? Or are there no things that only killers do, no ways that only killers react, because killers and non-killers are not, in fact, sorted into separate categories by an impermeable boundary? Does she want Syed to be innocent because she likes him, and wants to believe that she categorically could not like a murderer? Or is it because Syed is likable that he thought he might get away with the killing?

Given how many of our conversations require us to make these sorts of decisions quickly, or are aided by these sorts of faulty but helpful assumptions, there is something useful as well as intriguing about listening to Koenig process her own shifting opinions week after week on “Serial.”

I don’t disagree that there is something unnerving about turning a murder and a potential wrongful conviction into entertainment. And I do think that a more detailed tapestry of Baltimore that addresses questions about anti-Muslim bigotry that might have affected Syed’s conviction as well as police conduct that might have influenced Jay’s relationship with the detectives investigating Lee’s murder might enrich Koenig’s inquiry. Our ideas about race, gender, sexual orientation and the justice system often have a great deal to do with shaping our conclusions about more famous people who have been accused of terrible crimes.

But I’m not sure Sarah Koenig should be ashamed because she is doing something different from Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s reporting in “Random Family.” Instead, “Serial” ought to make us queasy because of what we see when the podcast forces us to take a hard look at ourselves.

Note: An earlier version of this post referred to Jay by his full name, which is accessible online. At the request of the producers of “Serial,” who are referring to him only by his first name, we have changed the post to do the same.