Important Notice

Special captions are available for the humor-impaired.

Pages

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Thoughts on the Podcast Serial


When I first heard about the podcast program Serial it sounded intriguing. I listened to the first two episodes of Season 1 about a high school couple in Maryland, a first generation Pakistani kid and his girlfriend who was from a Korean family. They were both exemplary high school kids: athletic and also good students from middle class families. The girl was murdered after they couple broke up and the kid was eventually arrested and finally convicted of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and now is in a Maryland prison. In the end I found the podcast to be compelling but also infuriating and frustrating.

The podcast takes up the story 15 years later and tries to get to the bottom of the case. The woman journalist has all the earnestness you expect from a public radio host hatched from This American Life. It’s obvious from the beginning that she is hoping beyond hope that the boy is innocent. From the beginning I was thinking that I didn’t really give a shit one way or another, innocent or guilty.

From the beginning of the program I wondered why she doesn’t ask the most important question of all: if he didn’t kill her then who the fuck did? Who else had the motivation? It's the old Occam’s Razor principle that the most likely explanation is probably the truth (Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected). So why wouldn’t the earnest talk show host ask this simple question? Or did I miss that episode because I had stopped listening? I didn’t think the host asked any good questions to anyone she interviewed. She seemed more inclined just to let them talk and most of the people interviewed are too stupid to have much of anything to say. Even 15 years later they come across as high school stoners. The tapes from the trial paint both the prosecution and the defense as pretty dim bulbs. As Tom Wolfe says in The Bonfire of the Vanities, heaven help anyone caught up in the American judicial system.

It’s not that random killings don’t occur in America but this case didn’t really have that sort of feel to it. I would venture to say that the police didn't have the evidence necessary to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kid did it but it seems obvious to me that he did. He's completely unrepentant of the crime which is fair if he didn’t do it but there is something else in his discussions of the crime. He doesn’t seem to give a shit that she is dead. This is the attitude you hear from all of the kids interviewed on the podcast. It’s like they are talking about losing a football game instead of a young girl who is murdered in cold blood and her body left in the shallow grave, as in First Degree Murder. Almost no mention is made of the victim in any of the episodes.

The kid came from a devout Muslim family, so devout that they came between the couple when they found out they were dating, going so far as storming a school dance and dragging their 17 year old son away. That incident in itself would send up some red flags in my book and would suggest a sort of pathological bipolarity in the young man. On the one hand he was having sex with the girl (so they say) and smoking marijuana while playing the part of a devout Muslim who went to the mosque regularly and attended a Muslim conference with his father. The kid was almost an adult (17 at that time) yet he couldn’t stand up to his mother and father about wanting to have a normal American teenage life? The girl dumped the kid and he says he was cool with that. I somehow doubt that this was true.

It seems like somewhat of a central issue in his life yet there is hardly any mention of the kid’s religion in the podcast. Nor is much mention of the kid’s Pakistani roots which I would think mattered quite a bit in the kid’s mental state and possible motivations, and by “motivations” I don’t mean simply criminal motivations but the sort of things that would have steered his behavior. 

The host of the show would make a terrible police interrogator as she seems terrified to ask any tough questions of anyone. She seems like the quintessential NPR host who would rather be PC than get to the heart of a matter, like we must respect everyone’s point of view. At times I get the feeling that the host is talking to a bunch of toddlers about who broke something and she takes everything they say as beyond reproach, at least when she is talking to them directly. At one point when she is interviewing some kid she says, "I don't mean to sound judgy or something but was there like any point when you should go tell the cops." Like her being "judgy" is the worst thing someone could do trying to get to the bottom of the case of a young woman brutally murdered and dumped in the woods. Grow a fucking pair and stop being afraid to make the little shits you are interviewing squirm a little.

At one point, while not actually asking who may have killed the girl if it wasn’t the kid the host talks with someone about an earlier murder case of a young Asian woman and they tell they host about the killer, “…and he said that he got out and became active for fourteen months, his release date was January 1, ’99.” The host gasps, “Oh my God.” Just why she gasps is strange because the older case was about a sex crime, that this criminal always had sex with his victims, a point not even mentioned by gasping and grasping for straws host. She does ask who is more likely to have killed the girl: the career criminal or the boy who had never been in trouble before? News flash: every criminal has to begin with a crime so the "never been in trouble before defense" is just stupid. In fact, almost all murders are committed by people who know the victim.

A little later in the final episode when the kid is told that they are finally going to check DNA samples in the case after 16 years (15 of which he has been locked up) he says, “There’s nothing about my case that I’m afraid of,” and we are left hanging without a response or challenge from the host, like this shows how he must be innocent. Of course the kid isn’t afraid of his case, he’s already serving life in prison in a state without a death penalty so what more can they do to him?

5 comments:

  1. NPR hosts possess a superlative capacity for dramatic journalizing. Unfortunately, their hosts, reporters and producers also infect the news to nauseating affect. It’s propaganda. This American Life (TAL) is particularly ponderous. Unfortunately, the success of TAL legitimized the style among NPR courtiers and clergy. And its elite, effete listeners who (mostly don't) financially support NPR demand the predictably pleasant proselytizing. Serial is overly-produced news-like product. It’s pablum.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read this critique some time back. It's spot on, and it comports with your analysis.

    http://gawker.com/what-serial-gets-wrong-1660778617

    ReplyDelete
  3. She is a terrible interviewer because she is terrified of asking difficult questions. She makes almost no mention of the kid's religion and how that could have been a factor in his motivation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yup. That's the NPR way. As a former public radio employee, I can tell you this style/posture is a feature, not a bug.

    ReplyDelete

If you can't say something nice, say it here.