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. Slate.com 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.
The story of Adnan's case was followed up on in the podcast Undisclosed by Rabia Chaudry.
- Adult Fear: Whether Adnan did it or not, Hae Min Lee left school one day, disappeared, and her body was found buried in the woods nearly a month later, and an autopsy showed she had been strangled. On a Reddit thread after the series finished, a man claiming to be Hae Min Lee's brother pointed out that to many listeners, Hae Min and Adnan's story is just that, a story, but to her family, it is a horrible reality.
- Adnan's parents get a heavy dose of this too - your son is dragged out of bed in the early hours of the morning to answer murder charges against the girl you tried to discourage him from seeing, the community turns against him (and to an extent against your religion) and you are forced to watch him be sentenced to life plus 30 years in a maximum security prison, while he insists he's innocent the entire time.
- 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.
- 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?
Koenig: (at the end of the last episode) " I don't know."
- 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.
- "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?
- And of course the biggest question of the season: Did Adnan Syed kill Hae Min Lee?
- 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.
- 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.
- Diary: Hae's diary was admitted into evidence for the case, and Sarah Koenig spends an episode going over the various entries in it chronicling Adnan and Hae's relationship.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).