Can “Serial” Add to Your Happiness?


June in case you don’t know what “Serial” is:

In 1999 an 18-year-old Baltimore girl named Hae Min Lee was murdered and her body found in a park not far from her high school.  Her ex-boyfriend, a Pakistani Muslim named Adnan Syed, was arrested and charged with the murder; no other suspect was ever considered.  The first trial ended in a mistrial; the second trial ended in a guilty verdict and Syed has been incarcerated in a supermax prison ever since.  A family friend and lawyer tried to get attention paid to the poor job done by the defense and the many inconsistencies in witness testimony, but she was unsuccessful in her efforts until she decided to try bringing the story to the media in some way.  She contacted a journalist named Sarah Koenig who became interested and ended up doing a 12-part podcast on the case, titled “Serial.”  This series exploded in popularity, with 68 million downloads on iTunes alone.  At some point I heard about it through the NPR program This American Life, thought it sounded interesting, and started listening to it myself.  (I wasn’t one of the 68 million, since I listened directly from the website.)  It didn’t take long for me to be just as fascinated as everyone else.  I had come in on the series at about episode six, so I binge-listened through them and then had to suffer along with everyone else through the waiting each week for Thursdays, when the new episodes came out.  The series wrapped up in December 2014 without coming to a firm conclusion, although the implication is clear that Syed is very possibly innocent.”Serial” spawned all sorts of spinoffs even while the original episodes were going on, including other podcasts and blogs.  Now Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who got the whole thing going, is doing a series of her own, called “Undisclosed.”  I’ve gotten drawn into that also, as well as into one called “Crime Writers on . . . ” which is a podcast about a podcast about a podcast.  Who knows how many layers will eventually accrete around this case.  Requests for appeal have now been filed; it seems likely that at some point Adnan Syed will be freed.

So what?  Is all this worth anybody’s time, including mine?  (Anybody not directly involved, that is.)  Why should I bother with it?  Is it going to add to my happiness in any way?  If I let this material distract me from my own life, as has certainly happened to me with other mysteries real or fictional, then it’s definitely counterproductive.  All those books that I couldn’t put down, the endings of which made no difference to me at all in any way and which I have now totally forgotten, were kind of a waste.  I don’t feel that way with “Serial” and its spinoffs, however.  For one thing, since almost all of the material is something that can be listened to and not read, I can be doing something else while it’s on.  Since I usually have the radio on anyway when I’m cooking or cleaning or ironing or whatever, why not listen to something that I find challenging and interesting?  Rather than having the radio as the default, I’m deliberately choosing my listening material.  I’m now much more motivated to learn how to download material to my phone; I wasted some time this morning trying to do just that and need to get Jim to show me yet again.  I do feel that I’m learning quite a bit about our system of justice; if I’m ever called as a juror again I might be better prepared.  My natural skepticism has been given a shot in the arm; I also like being given some guidance on how to think about crime and credibility.  One danger of getting so involved in the intricacies of a real-life case is that you’ll start thinking of the whole thing as a bloodless puzzle rather than an actual tragedy.  There’s a real person sitting in prison, with a family that has to carry on with their lives, and another family that is still grieving over the death of Hae Min Lee.

That being said, it’s not a bad thing to be aware of a cultural phenomenon and to be able to talk about it intelligently.  I’ve never watched “The Voice” or “Desperate Housewives” or anything to do with the Kardashians (some kind of reality show, I’ve gathered) and have no intention of doing so.  You have to be choosy about how much and what you absorb, of course.  And at some point you have to call a halt.  But for now I do think I’ve gained some real insights into human nature.  It’s time for lunch, and while I’m eating I plan to read a blog post on the cell phone records that formed such a big part of the prosecution’s case.  It’s a happy feeling to have my brain cells stretched!

If you haven’t listened to any of this material but would like to do so, you can go on iTunes and use the titles I gave above to find the podcasts, or you can use the following links:
Serial Podcast
Crime Writers On . . .
Undisclosed Podcast

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