So, I’ve been listening to the first season of Serial. Yes, I’m a year late to it, but still, I’ve been engaged in a quite rapid catch-up session with the show, and it’s… interesting? Frustrating? Manipulative? All three? Or just interesting, with a lot of post facto justification of my own going on. I don’t know.
First, I know how it ends. That ending – the one where the key witness admits to things which would likely have changed the verdict of the second trial – made the news, so even if you hadn’t been following Serial, you knew where it ended up. Knowing that ending makes the first two thirds of the show very weird. It seems obvious in retrospect that everything is leading up to that reveal, and its hard to imagine the show’s producers aren’t actively manipulating the listener. After all, that witness is – arguably – the real star of the show, even though he doesn’t make an actual appearance until episode 8 or so.
Now, the obvious rejoinder to this is that this only seems to be the case because I already know the ending. It’s like reading the last chapter of a murder mystery first and, having discovered who the murderer is, reading the book to work out whether the author is being fair to the reader. I know the witness is going to be made out to be very unreliable indeed, so I suspect the show’s producers of manipulating the story to get me on their side early on. Yet, it’s quite possible that the story they told was simply the best way to get their points across, and it just seems manipulative after the fact.
Second, there’s the other side of the coin. It’s obvious fairly early on that the entire case against the defendant is predicated on the story of one key witness. Yet no one on the show tries to contact him until half a year into the investigation. They chase all sorts of leads, try to verify all sorts of angles on the story, but they don’t try to speak to him until very late in the game? That’s just weird. It almost seems sloppy. It is as if the producers are stringing along the audience, building up a case against said witness, rather than impartially looking into the case.
Yet. Yet the show is gripping. The way in which they grapple with the swings of “Did they? DID THEY?” you get when investigating a story is a joy to listen to. Whilst at times everyone just seems a tad too credulous, this gets mediated by the fact that experts come in and then say “What you’re feeling is perfectly natural”. Indeed, it’s a lovely example of “Showing your working”, which both speaks to how messy conducting such an explanation is, and the way in which views shift and change as new evidence comes to light.
However, there is a feeling that whilst Serial is the product of a lengthy investigation, the show itself was made at the end to feel like you were with them from the very beginning. It reminds me quite a bit about the documentary Operation 8: Deep in the Forest (which inspired a chapter in my PhD thesis), which similarly plays with evidence to advance an agenda (an agenda I agree with, I might add). In both cases the story is told chronologically, but it is obvious that the end was were the story really started. In the case of Operation 8, you can at least excuse the documentarians, because the nature of a feature-length documentary is “Well, we’ve filmed all this material, so here’s a through line for it…” However, in the case of Serial, the episodic release structure suggests an evolving case, even though the narrative looks utterly fixed… Although that might just be an artefact of my “foreknowledge” in this particular case.