In 2014, the NPR podcast Serial became the medium’s first mega hit, ultimately downloaded over 86 million times. Developed by the producers of This American Life, the 12-episode Serial (the first of what would be three seasons focusing on three different subjects) saw journalist Sarah Koenig investigating the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee. There were many who believed, at the time and now, that the man arrested for her murder — her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, also in high school at the time — was innocent.
Serial went deep into the particulars of the mostly botched case, which riveted listeners into becoming armchair sleuths. Reddit boards lit up with theories and new investigative attempts to unlock the riddle, focusing in particular on a mysterious fellow classmate, Jay Wilds, whose varying testimony led to Adnan’s arrest and conviction. Serial ended that first season without resolution, leaving many listeners frustrated. However, the case made in the podcast was strong enough to propel Adnan towards a long path of appeals, ones that are still being fought out in the Maryland court system.
Director Amy Berg has resurrected the case in a new four-part HBO documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Unlike the podcast, which waffled on the question of Adnan’s innocence and left things uncertain, Berg’s piece is heavily biased towards Adnan’s freedom. Bolstered by the work of close family friend Rabia Chaudry, an attorney who has been advocating for Adnan since the beginning and first brought media attention to the case, The Case Against Adnan Syed brings in tons of archival footage and interviews with the Syed family, Adnan and Hae’s friends from school, and even a damning phone call from Jay. Instead of a retread of Serial, this new series uses its visual medium to the fullest, showing us everything we only heard about in the podcast, and truly immersing us in the life these kids had back in the late 90s.
Another notable change from the podcast is that from the start, Berg’s documentary wants to give Hae a voice. In Serial, Hae’s story often got lost under the excitement of trying to overturn what might be a wrongful conviction. And yet, the most important question still remained: who killed Hae? If not Adnan, then who? Though the facts of what actually happened that day may never fully be known, there is one fact that is undisputed: Hae Min Lee lost her life.
In an attempt to give Hae some kind of agency in the piece, Berg uses her diaries (which are part of the case’s evidence file) and hires a voice actor to read them out while animation of Hae, Adnan, and the diary itself work to give us a sense of who this person was. While the intent is admirable, the final result feels exploitative. A diary is the most private work a person can have, and there is of course no way that Hae could give consent for it being used (there is a friend of the Lees who occasionally appears as a “family spokesperson,” but it is clear that Hae’s family believes Adnan is guilty, and have no interest in reliving this trauma or in those looking to dredge it all back up). Perhaps worse still is that the diary comes from a period in time when Hae was dating Adnan, which means it’s fully of flowery teenage thoughts about young love, with complementary romantic animation. If Adnan did kill Hae or had anything at all to do with her murder, that’s some pretty sick shit.
That aside — and that is a pretty major aside — the documentary does pivot in its second episode to focus on the facts of the case and the discrepancies within the testimonies, and brings in a team of private investigators and legal aids to break down how things went so wrong. It reorients Serial listeners with the particulars of the case without feeling redundant, and then in the third episode goes on to reveal what has happened since the podcast, including where the appeals process is now. Some of the most intense moments, though, come in the personal testimonies of Hae and Adnan’s classmates who were questioned by police at the time, and whose recollections even then were so wrong that they inadvertently damned a person to prison who otherwise might have had a clear alibi. Their reactions — and those of law enforcement — to the presentations of those facts is raw and often frustrating when it comes to their denial, but it’s clear how much they want to protect themselves from the idea that they may have been partly responsible for a wrong conviction.
And again, The Case Against Adnan Syed is very clear that this was a wrongful conviction. There’s no room for doubt, nor is there much room given to alternate theories of who the killer might have been. However, HBO sending critics three out of the eventual four episodes could be a clue that there is something more pivotal still to be revealed. If the show is just re-telling the story Serial did from a new perspective, what would be the reason for withholding the final hour unless there was an important revelation? That’s not say that there might be an arrest of any kind, but my mind immediately went to the finale of the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, where after unprecedented personal access, director Andrew Jarecki is able to catch Durst admitting on a hot mic, “killed ‘em all, of course.” I remember literally jumping out of my chair. The documentary had made a clear case against Durst, so much so that (in addition to what seemed like a confession), there was enough evidence uncovered that Durst was arrested by FBI Agents in New Orleans in 2015 for the murder of Susan Berman. Durst is currently serving an 85-month sentence on a gun charge, and is awaiting trial for murder.
Could The Case Against Adnan Syed also be withholding a bombshell in its final hour? If not, frankly, it’s hard to make a case for it. Yes, for fans of true crime series, Berg’s documentary is a riveting exploration of the foibles of the justice system, especially when it comes to dealing with minority kids in a Baltimore suburb. For listeners of Serial, it’s literally an eye-opening experience to see interviews with Asia McClain, Aisha Pittman, and Jenn Pusateri, and to look at archival video and photographs of Jay, Stephanie, Adnan, Hae, and the other main figures in the story. But whether or not that’s enough to warrant another look into a case that may ultimately be unsolvable, and one where potential rectification for Adnan is already working its way through the legal system, is less certain. Hae’s voice, which is so strong in the first episode (despite the questionable use of her personal material), again fades away as the series progresses. But the documentary is, as the title states, all about Adnan. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that — if Adnan is in fact innocent — out of two extreme injustices, at least one can potentially be made right.
The Case Against Adnan Syed premieres Sunday, March 10th on HBO.