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The Many Rabbit Holes (Or Should We Say Labyrinths) Of Serial

Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis in the studio.
Elise Bergerson
Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis in the studio.

As Serial winds to an end, those of us behind Code Switch and Monkey See have been talking a whole lot about the podcast. Here's Part 4 of our exchange. Later today, Sarah Koenig will talk to All Things Considered about the final episode — available this morning — and we'll give you the details on that as well.

Hey, Matt, Gene and Linda —

There's this string of Serial parodies that I think I might've shared with the three of you at some point in the past few weeks. (Or, you know, you might've just found them on your own, because I feel like they were everywhere, hanging around the many corners of the Internet.) The parodies are all pretty spot-on, in that they each hit the nail of Sarah Koenig's tendency to dive down rabbit holes — very deep tunnels, and with a lot of gusto — right on the head.

In this particular parody, comedian William Stephen, who voices Koenig, asks, all earnestly: "Where was the pay phone? What's a Best Buy? What makes its buy the best?" These questions are, of course, goofy, weird and nonsensical, but not too far of a departure from the type of questioning Koenig delivers in each of her episodes as she examines two very serious things: the murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent trial of Adnan Syed. (More on that difficult balance in a bit — as Gene told me earlier today, to get at the nuance in a complicated story like Lee's murder, you have to jump down various holes, and you have to let yourself get a little obsessed.)

The thing about Serial and its endless rabbit holes is that it allows for many different ways to view the podcast. You could, like Linda, consider it to be a true crime show. You could think, like Matt, that in the end Koenig is going to reframe it all as a trial about a trial. Or you could, like Gene, see the many other resonances to what's going on today.

At some point, you've probably had some questions: Why didn't Adnan call Hae when she went missing? or What do Hae's parents think about all this? or What does Jay's girlfriend — who refused to talk to Koenig for the podcast — think or know about this case? (Maybe they're not rabbit holes; maybe they're rabbit labyrinths.) With Serial, Koenig has built a world that her listeners can reference to talk about other things — Gene's piece that connected Serial to stories like Ferguson is a prime example. So it makes sense that it's resonated with listeners, that it has sparked podcasts about the podcast, that it has launched a well-trafficked subreddit.

All right. All right. So, some of the things I thought about, with varying degrees of depth:

1. The story is more about Koenig's process — and her becoming obsessed with the trial — than it is about finding a definitive answer about whether Adnad Syed killed Hae Min Lee: We're constantly reminded that this podcast contains only fragments of the very real lives it represents.

2. Koenig's idea of "casual prejudice": In Episode 10, "The Best Defense Is a Good Defense," Koenig finally addresses issues of race. (How Koenig has or hasn't talkedabout race has been a big point of contention about the podcast.) She plays tape of the prosecutor calling Syed a "Pakistan man" during the bail hearing; the prosecutor was making the argument that Syed's heritage and religion made him dangerous and a flight risk. She refers to research put together for the detectives working on the case: "Report on Islamic Fad and Culture with Emphasis on Pakistan, a Comparative Study relevant to the Upcoming Trial of Adnan Syed."

Also, Koenig says this:

"One of Adnan's teachers, for example: 'Think about what he would have been taught about women and women's rights.' Another teacher I talked to told me she was terrified at the time that Adnan's relatives were going to come after her for talking to the detectives. She told me she assumed his parents were evil. On that website that lists all the bodies found in Leakin Park, the author's commentary about Hae Min Lee's case is 'maybe my prejudice is showing through, but who in their right mind lets their daughter date a man named Adnan Musud Syed?' "

And yet, Koenig tiptoes around the R-word — she refers to the above litany as "casual prejudice." "You can hear me not believing ... the notion that the cops and prosecutors in this case were driven by anti-Muslim feeling, by racism and by racism alone," she tells her listeners. Was she skirting around the word "racist" because she thought it was too inflammatory, or that it might derail the story? If someone was convicted of murder in part because jurors linked his ethnic background to his motive — then doesn't "casual prejudice" seem too flip of a descriptor?

3. Cristina Gutierrez's voice and the way people talk about it: So, remember in that very first episode, when Koenig explains how she happened upon the story? Koenig says that Rabia Chaudry found her because she'd written about Gutierrez — Syed's lawyer — years before.

She says in that episode:

"I'd written about a well-known defense attorney in Baltimore who'd been disbarred for mishandling client money. That attorney was the same person who defended Adnan, her last major trial, in fact. Rabia told me she thought the attorney botched the case — not just botched it, actually, but threw the case on purpose so she could get more money for the appeal. The lawyer had died a few years later. She'd been sick."

As Serial gained traction, Gutierrez has been a focus of fierce debate. Folks have criticized the way Gutierrez handled a witness and how she flubbed on some possibly exculpatory evidence. But many people are zeroing in on how she sounded in Adnan's defense. In recordings from the trial, her voice and delivery were strained, with drawn-out words and a rhythm that was more of an amble than a jog.

Listeners have called Gutierrez's voice "grating." ("I'm an atheist, but if you can convince me hell is real and Cristina Gutierrez's voice is piped in 24/7, you'll see me in church," one redditor said. His comment got nearly 800 upvotes.) But it's worth remembering how often women's voices come in for this kind of criticism. Earlier this year, NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin made a video about "talking while female." It illustrates the point that for so long, women's voices have been criticized for being too high, for being too low, for not sounding authoritative, for not sounding adult, or for phrasing sentences so that they sound like uncertain questions. (It's not clear that men don't do these things either, but they certainly aren't criticized in the same capacity.)

4. The ethics: Whenever I talk to people about Serial, at some point in the conversation, these sorts of thoughts get raised: This is a podcast about real people, about a real tragedy that devastated real families.

It's something that's easy to forget, until, say, someone saying he's Hae Min Lee's brother shows up on a reddit thread, writing about how 15 years after the most tragic moment of his life, it's become a major pop culture obsession.

A perfect example is Best Buy's tweet from last week, in which it joked about the case's infamous pay phone. "We have everything you need. Unless you need a pay phone. #Serial." It's exactly the kind of mistake someone might make when the line between a true story and entertainment is muddied. It's serialized drama, but it's not serialized fiction — and as consumers of this, we're not passive participants.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.
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