Is it Wrong to Love the ‘Serial’ Podcast?


Thursday mornings mark a new era in office watercooler conversation: Did Adnan Syed do it?

Each week the Serial podcast, a sibling to This American Life, unfurls a different chapter of the true murder of Hae Min Lee, leaving audiences — DailyWorth staff included — speculating over the culprit.

But while the detailed execution has been heralded as “a thoughtful exploration of real, recognizable people,” Serial is being consumed like entertainment. Even the podcast’s website describes it like a Netflix thriller:

On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. … The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence — all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, [producer Sarah Koenig] looks for answers.

The tactic is a success: Serial is the number one podcast on iTunes, a spot the series achieved even before it debuted thanks to an initial plug on This American Life. Six episodes in, Serial has reportedly hit one million listeners.

A recent BuzzFeed poll asks “armchair detectives” to vote on Lee’s killer, and a variety of headlines — such as This American Life’ Channels ‘True Detective’ in a New Podcast — blur the line between nonfiction and fiction, displaying an alarming detachment from the very real death of Hae Min Lee.

But this isn’t an episode of True Detective. A real teenage girl was murdered. And yet, we devour her death as if she was the fictitious Laura Palmer. Similarly, the social media conversations surrounding Serial reduce Lee’s murder to the cliffhangers of a TV show, such as the following tweets:

In promoting the audio series, This American Life host Ira Glass even likened the “experience” to that of streaming shows:

"We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you're driving."

Finding a contemporary thriller/suspense show that isn’t anchored in the death, abduction or assault of a girl or woman is the new Bechdel test.

Popular binge-watch shows like True DetectiveTop of the LakeThe KillingHemlock GrovePretty Little Liars and pretty much every episode of Law & Order: SVU operate from one essential premise: a girl/woman has been violated or abducted.

This plot point has proved endlessly intriguing to audiences, and therefore wildly profitable. Consider the colossal success of Gone Girl — which tactfully tapped into, and complicated, the narrative surrounding missing (white) women. The macabre fascination with young murdered women is nothing new, from Twin Peaks (currently being remade) to The Lovely Bones (a no. 1 best seller).

But the fact that missing and abused women — fictional or otherwise — are consistently lucrative plots is even more troublesome given just how common these incidents are: One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime and, every year, one in three murdered women is killed by her current or former partner.

What is it about our culture that creates such dissonance between the missing women in our Netflix stream and the missing women in our news cycle?

What about their helplessness and brutal demise is truly entertaining?