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Podcast / Serial

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"First they come looking for a monster, and they don't find that. Then they come looking for a victim, and they don't find that either. So now they don't know what to think."
Adnan Syed, describing the audience

Serial is a weekly Documentary-style podcast focusing on non-fiction stories, hosted by Sarah Koenig. It is a spin-off of This American Life. As the name would suggest, the show slowly explores the details of a story week by week, in a serial format, gradually unraveling the details of the case.

The first season began on October 3, 2014, focusing on the Real Life case of a man named Adnan Syed who was accused and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in January 1999. Adnan has always maintained his innocence and his family insists he was wrongfully convicted, based on a poor legal defense from his lawyer and a relatively flimsy prosecution: there was no direct evidence tying him to the murder, and he was largely convicted on the testimony of a single witness.

In each episode host Sarah Koenig focuses on various aspects of the case, such as the prosecution's timeline of the alleged murder or the suspicious circumstances in which Hae Min's body was found. Woven throughout Koenig's narration are recorded interviews with people who knew Hae and Adnan, recordings from the trial, police recordings from interviews, as well as phone interviews with Adnan himself, calling from the maximum-security prison he's spent most his adult life in. Koenig is also investigating the case and reveals her findings to the listeners as they happen.

By the time the twelfth and final episode of Season 1 was released on December 19, Serial had become the fastest podcast to hit 5 million downloads, and was ranked in Apple's top 10 podcasts list globally. and The AV Club both produced their own podcasts to simply discuss and break down the original podcast.

Season Two began on 10 December 2015, and focuses on American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently held by the Taliban for almost five years, before being part of a controversial prisoner swap.

Season Three was first released in September 2018. Unlike the previous two seasons, which focused on individual cases, Season Three has a systemic focus on the American criminal justice system. The Serial producers do not follow one case but rather one courthouse—specifically the Cuyahoga County Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

In July 2020, Serial Productions, the company behind the podcast, was acquired by The New York Times.

Serial, like This American Life, is a production of WBEZ Chicago. See also S-Town, a spinoff by the same producers.

The story of Adnan's case was followed up on in the podcast Undisclosed by Rabia Chaudry, and in September 2022, Adnan's conviction was ultimately overturned and he was freed from prison.


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    Season 1 

  • Affably Evil: Even the people who believe Adnan is guilty remember him as a really nice guy.
  • Amoral Attorney: One interpretation of Adnan's defense attorney, and the focus of an entire episode.
    • The prosecutor Kevin Urick pulls a few questionable moves as well. He finds an attorney for Jay, which Koenig considers an unethical benefit to sway Jay's testimony, and furiously berates Hae's boyfriend Don for not portraying Adnan as creepy enough in his testimony.
    • In 2015, Adnan Syed was allowed to file a new appeal to allow him to contest the effectiveness of her defense, and argue he deserved a new trial as a result.
      • In 2019 the Murder conviction was reinstated as the court of Maryland did not find that Adnan Syed's case would have changed if he would have been given a new trial.
      • And then in 2022, under a new law passed in Maryland meant to review cases where juveniles had been given hefty sentences, the current prosecutor's office found a note that had allegedly not been turned over to Adnan's lawyer (who can't be asked if he actually did receive it, on account of being dead) which can be read as referring to a different suspect... or as referring to Adnan, which is what the prosecutor says he meant. Failure to turn over evidence can be a Brady violation, albeit other prosecutors familiar with the case disagree with some of the Brady allegations. These factors amongst others ultimately lead to Adnan's conviction being vacated and his subsequent release in 2022.
      • But the twists don't stop there: As of March 2023, the decision to vacate was reversed by an appellate court: "We remand for a new, legally compliant, and transparent hearing on the motion to vacate, where Mr. Lee (Hae Min's brother) is given notice of the hearing that is sufficient to allow him to attend in person, evidence supporting the motion to vacate is presented, and the court states its reasons in support of its decision." The emphasised sections of that quote (emphasis added by the editor), translated from legalese, are a resounding yell of "What the hell were you thinking?" to the original decision, pointing out that no evidence was presented to the court and the reasoning behind the judge's decision was not recorded.
  • Anachronic Order: The twelve episodes are themed, rather than in chronological order, and new information from the start of the story is still appearing right at the end.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In Adnan's weekly phone calls to Koenig, he eventually gets irritated at her frequent re-questioning of his account. The response accidentally highlights the difficulty of the entire podcast:
    Adnan: What's your interest in this case, really? Why are you doing this?
    Koenig: My interest in it honestly has been you. You're a really nice guy, I like talking to you, you know? So then it's like this question of, "What does that mean" you know?
    Adnan: (long pause) I mean, you don't even really know me though, Koenig! (stammers) You don't... We only talk on the phone, I don't understand what you mean. It's just weird to hear you say that because, I don't really even know you.
    Koenig: Wait, are you saying you don't think I know you at all?
    • Another is delivered by one of Hae's old friends: If Adnan didn't do it, who did? One of the biggest questions of the case and the podcast is why there haven't been any real alternate suspects found, or why Jay would burn Adnan if he wasn't involved. The finale podcast reveals they are attempting to test DNA to link it to a serial killer who was known to be in Baltimore at the time, but everyone involved admits it is a massive longshot.
      • And then in 2022 a prosecutor assigned to review Adnan's case found that her predecessors actually had two other viable suspects with clear links to the case: another boyfriend of Hae who had allegedly expressed a desire to hurt her and a man who is in jail for multiple sexual assaults and had a clear link to the crime scene. Adnan's attorney had not been given this information, which is a Brady violation, but other prosecutors for the state of Maryland disagree with some of the Brady allegations.
    • "Crime Writers On Serial", one of the many spin off podcasts, pointed out one of the biggest questions raised by the "Adnan is Innocent" angle - If Adnan didn't do it, how did Jay know where Hae's car was?
      • Serial did not discuss this detail directly but fans have. The car was not in an isolated area, but a parking lot near Hae's school. Jay easily could have walked past it and recognized it. One thing the podcast did discuss was the possibility that the detectives coached Jay on what he should do and say say to best help their case, as his interrogations were recorded by audio only, and they found suspicious tapping sounds. Koenig suggested that the detectives could have had prompts written down and were pointing at what he should say.
    • And of course the biggest question of the season: Did Adnan Syed kill Hae Min Lee?
    Koenig: (at the end of the last episode) " I don't know."
  • Berserk Button: Adnan wishes that people believe he didn't do it because of the evidence:
    Adnan: People keep saying, 'Oh, I don't think you did it because you're a nice guy'. And I'm like, 'Great, but that doesn't help me.'"
    • The other time he gets agitated is having to have his Old Shame teenage behavior dredged up over and over, when everybody else gets to forget them.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Invoked when trying to square Adnan's otherwise exemplary character with the crime he was convicted of. In Real Life most killers aren't violent psychopaths 99% of the time and Adnan was young enough that any latent anger issues may not have previously had a chance to surface.
  • Bittersweet Ending: If you believe that Adnan is guilty, then while Hae is still dead justice was served. And even after Adnan's conviction was overturned, he still spent decades in prison, which in many states is considered an adequate punishment for murder. And if you believe that he's innocent his conviction was eventually overturned and Adnan got a job at a prestigious university working to help other wrongfully convicted people.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Adnan says that the reason why he can't remember what happened on the day of Hae's disappearance is that it was such an ordinary day for him.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': If you believe Adnan is innocent, then his story has real implications of this, as he couldn't have been named as the main suspect in the case if he hadn't had a girlfriend and smoked weed.
  • Clear Their Name: The general idea of the show. Was Adnan wrongfully convicted? Sarah Koenig initially became interested in the case because a member of Adnan's family implored her to look into the case; she was soon sucked in and developed an obsession, culminating in the idea for the podcast. Throughout the course of the show, Koenig herself is never fully sure if Adnan is telling the truth or if she's just being played.
  • Contrived Coincidence: In the last episode Sarah Koenig points out how incredibly unlucky Adnan would have to have be if he were wrongfully convicted. His girlfriend is murdered just when he had a motive to kill her and at the exact time where neither he nor anyone else could account for his whereabouts.
  • The CSI Effect: Season 1 indirectly explores this as most of the evidence is circumstantial and the primary forensic evidence available involving cell phone records was, at the time, rudimentary and then less tested in court. Does the lack of so called hard evidence imply innocence or are the listeners applying too high a standard?
  • Detective Drama: Somewhat of a Real Life example with Sarah Koenig, who's digging into Adnan Syed's murder conviction.
  • Dirty Cop: One of the detectives involved in the case was Bill Ritz, who was accused of manipulating evidence amongst other acts of misconduct by a man who was investigated by Ritz around the same time as Adnan was. Said man was ultimately exonerated. And then Adnan was freed in 2022.
  • Dirty Coward: As with all things in this case, this is a very, very big if, but the podcast raises the possibility that the detectives coached Jay on what to do and say to best help their case. Many have pointed out that given Jay's history of criminal behavior, they could have pressured him into cooperating with them in exchange for lenience on another charge. If this is true, then Jay ruined Adnan's life to save his own skin. However, just as the evidence against Adnan is weak, weak enough that his conviction was overturned when a new prosecutor reviewed it, the evidence of Jay lying isn't very strong. All new reviews of the case have revealed is that the cellphone location data the prosecution used to corroborate his story was not very accurate and that the police failed to clear at least two other viable suspects—and alert Adnan's defense attorney to this fact. That's not the same thing as proving that he was lying. As such, and given just how many listeners side with Adnan, it's no wonder the Serial team elected to never mention Jay's last name.
  • Disposing of a Body: According to Jay's testimony, Adnan killed Hae and put her in the trunk of a car. Later on, Adnan and Jay buried her in a park.
  • Epic Fail: In the finale it is revealed that the Innocence Project team working on Adnan's behalf may have finally found an alternate suspect: Ronald Lee Moore, a then-active serial killer in the Maryland area. They know he was there because the state of Maryland released him by accident, resulting in at least two known rapes and one murder. Which is an Epic Fail for Maryland, but - with no evidence at all having been found of his involvement in the murder of Hae Min - it's not great for those arguing for Adnan's innocence, either.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Specific example invoked in the first trial. Adnan's lawyer is apparently doing well, then gets into a verbal altercation with the judge, who calls her a 'liar', which the jury hear, even though they shouldn't be able to. Mistrial declared, and everybody comes back weeks later for another trial.
  • Genre Savvy: Both the host, and the suspect. The Intrepid Reporter trope (see below) and very existence of the podcast and it's increasing popularity are mentioned, and it's possible effect on the real-life participants. She also thinks that Adnan keeps his calls in the Strictly Professional Relationship territory so as to not appear like the Manipulative Bastard.
  • Hide the Evidence: Jay throwing away the clothes he was wearing when he helped to dig the grave for Hae with Adnan.
  • Human-Interest Story: The whole point of the show. Season 1 digs deep into Adnan Syed as a person, as well as the personal lives of many other people associated with Adnan.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Sarah Koenig and the rest of the producers of the show come off as this, especially when she goes into detail about the steps they've taken to research parts of the story.
    • When they are going to see Jay unannounced they are clearly nervous but pumped up, as if they might be stepping into a potentially awkward situation.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Supposedly Adnan's reason to kill Hae. They had dated and then Hae broke up with him. Adnan himself denies this and said there were no hard feelings, and that they had broken up several times already. Later reviews of the case also revealed that the police didn't clear another one of Hae's exes, who had allegedly expressed a desire to hurt her.
  • Innocence By Contradiction: Much of what points to Adnan's innocence are contradictions in the testimony and between various statements regarding timelines and locations. While the show does a good job of exploring these and providing a number of explanations, because of this trope in media listeners with no experience in the legal system are likely to be swayed by said contradictions. However the prosecutor points out that cases involving eye witness testimony almost always have inconsistencies because of the limitations of human memory and ulterior motives of the witnesses and therefore the only contradictions that 'matter' are those involving the "key facts" of the case.
  • I Won't Say I'm Guilty: Adnan has always claimed his innocence and says that he doesn't remember anything about the events of the day Hae was murdered because to him, it was just a normal day, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Before his trial he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it. This has drastically reduced his chances of parole: failure to show remorse means parole is almost always denied.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: What Adnan and his family insist happen. Adnan has staunchly maintained his innocence and points to the relative lack of any slam-dunk evidence against him. There's also the claim that his original defense lawyer might've intentionally botched the case in order to make more money on the appeal later on.
  • No Ending: The first season ends with Sarah Koenig (and her team) convinced that Adnan should not have been found guilty based on the evidence and testimony presented. But he's still in prison, and they're not sure he's innocent, just that the prosecution's case was so flimsy that there's reasonable doubt.
    • In 2022 the series got a sort of half resolution: Adnan's conviction was overturned, meaning that he's a free man and Hae's case was reclassified as unsolved. In response to this news, The Daily, a free podcast published six days a week by the New York Times, called in Koenig to go over the news in their episode for September 20, 2022. In it, she does an overview of why the current members of the prosecutor's office ultimately decided to overturn his conviction and says that there are ongoing efforts to see if new, more advanced DNA testing can link one of a pair of alternate suspects they have to the case. According to Koenig, Adnan could technically be prosecuted again but the odds of that are very slim.
  • No Name Given: Koenig attempts to preserve some of the parties' privacy by not naming them or only using one name. However, since court proceedings are public record in the United States, this ultimately proved futile.
  • Not Good with Rejection: The prosecution's case for Adnan's motive. Adnan and Hae had been dating in secret (due to not wanting to their families to know) and Hae broke it off with Adnan because she had fallen for someone else. The prosecution says that this drove Adnan into a murderous rage and is why he ultimately killed her. This is backed up in Jay's testimony, where Adnan allegedly told Jay repeatedly that he wanted to kill Hae for rejecting him.
    • And one potential alternate suspect is in fact another boyfriend of Hae who allegedly expressed a desire to hurt her.
  • Only One Name: Jay's last name is not given on the show, to avoid having him harassed in real life.
  • Plea Bargain: What Adnan claims he would tell his younger self to do, though apparently he asked his lawyer before the trial if he should plea out and was told 'no'.
  • Poorly-Disguised Pilot: More like "Completely Undisguised Pilot"—Episode 1 of Serial, "The Alibi", was aired as Episode 537 of This American Life, with Ira Glass introducing it by saying, in essence, "Here's the first episode of this spinoff of ours, please subscribe."
  • Precision F-Strike: In the first episode: "That is not a strategy. That is a fuck-up."
  • Red Herring: Tons, since this is a Real Life murder case and thus doesn't have the benefit of The Law of Conservation of Detail. It's hard to know what details are important to the case or simply unimportant.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Adnan is very erudite, but he uses a lot of slang.
  • Spin-Off: Serial probably sets the record for the amount of spin off podcasts that have been created (although it should be noted that none of them are done by This American Life). Rabia, the friend of Adnan's who called Susan, started one called "Undisclosed: The State Vs Adnan Syed" to continue documenting Adnan's legal battle and the continuing investigations. Other well know podcasts include The Serial Dynasty and Crime Writers On Serial. Although most of the podcasts are separate creations, there's a lot of collaboration between the makers.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: If Adnan really did kill Hae and has just been fooling Koenig (and the listeners) then the show's portrayal of him is this.
  • Unreliable Narrator: A running theme of the series. The murder happened more than 15 years ago, so many of the people are hazy on details, actively contradict each other or just can't remember what happened, including Adnan. The series also focuses a great deal on how much Jay's testimony changed between tellings.

    Season 2 

  • Sweet Tooth: According to Bowe, the Taliban. Apparently the best way to piss off a Taliban fighter is to cut off his supply of sweet tea and sugary drinks. Mountain Dew is especially popular.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Discussed. While many people have argued that anything Bowe Bergdahl says is unreliable because he is a traitor to them, this isn't what concerns Sarah. Having considered the evidence, she's more concerned with how closely Bowe's memory conforms to what actually happened, which she emphasizes after learning of Bowe's Schizotypal Personality Disorder diagnosis. Mark, Sarah's partner on Season 2, objects to this—though he knows the same things as her, he sees it as unfair to devalue Bowe's memory because of a diagnosis. On the other hand, this diagnosis actually leads Sarah to trust Bowe more in a sense: because of the diagnosis, she comes to believe that Bowe was at worst mistaken about or misinterpreting events, and was not, therefore, a liar or a traitor. Her conclusion is that inconsistencies both within Bowe's account of events and between Bowe's recollection and that of other people can be explained by the diagnosis (and a significant helping of just the ordinary fallibility of human memory, no disorder required).