December 18, 2014

The "Serial" finale.

Here. We've listened. Have you? I don't have to say "spoiler alert," do I? Anyway, both Meade and I reacted to the conclusion by saying "bullshit." We both listened to the whole series believing that Adnan was, in fact, guilty, and the finale made that awfully clear, even though Sarah Koenig ultimately copped out with a how-do-we-really-ever-know ending.

Koenig only toyed with the problem of her own self-interest. After letting another person — the office "Mr. Spock" — sum up the evidence logically, Koenig anguishes over whether she's done the whole series for no reason. She needs the show not to have been a ridiculous tease — a cruel tease, denying closure to the family who lost their beautiful girl. Koenig lacked the guts to turn on herself and to say, I benefited, I became famous, I made a show that 5 million people hung on — even Althouse punched in at the exact minute (6 a.m. Central Time) when the finale became available.

Koenig had to pose as the person with empathy. Poor Adnan! Arrested at the age of 17! Handsome and charming! His friends say he was not capable of such an act. Let that other person in the office — whose name I can't remember — give the real ending of the show and explain how the data points in combination reveal Adnan as the murderer. Koenig gets to be the embodiment of feeling and philosophic doubt — the artist, not the logician or lawyer. And she lures her listeners into joining her in the comfortable place, where we are just not sure enough to accept that this man, this former teenager, is in prison.

I'm resisting that temptation. I was skeptical from Episode 1, because I didn't hear honesty in Adnan's voice, but I went on the journey anyway. Why? It had to have been the seductive quality of Koenig's voice and storytelling. And that music. It was all very well done, and yet, that ending... that emoting in The Theater of the Unknowable... too easy. And — this is what was left unacknowledged — self-serving.

IN THE COMMENTS: Bob Boyd said: "I wish NPR would bring in a heartless Vulcan to tell it like it is at the end of all their news stories."

ADDED: Dwight Garner in the NYT:
[N]o matter how “Serial” stuck its landing, I had decided by Episode 3 that I would follow Ms. Koenig’s work wherever it takes her. She is an agile writer of cool, declarative sentences. Her voice — literate, probing, witty, seemingly without guile — is an intoxicating one to have in your head....

If a part of the impact of “Serial” has been watching Ms. Koenig’s rise, another part has been watching the revivifying of an old form, the radio serial. She’s made a show that seems dowdy and postmodern all at once. Each episode found its own length, from 28 to 56 minutes. There’s a primal pull to radio drama that many of us had nearly forgotten. We were eager on some level (perhaps too eager) to submit to the spell that “Serial” cast.
Yes, "We were eager," but do not forget that a young woman was murdered. The meta question of guilt is: Should we have taken our pleasures here? 

42 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

Re: "Anyway, both Meade and I reacted to the conclusion by saying "bullshit.""

I didn't follow "Serial", or read much current fiction, or watch many long-form shows, for this precise reason: the art of making a satisfactory ending seems to be lost (or purposely evaded or thwarted).

I got tired of investing time only to have Lucy pull the football from Charlie Brown yet again.

At least in non-fiction you have a reasonable idea of how it ends: they DID save Hitler's brain, for instance. There are other examples.

I am Laslo.

tim maguire said...

Your summary reminds me of Twelve Angry Men, where one man's feeling and philosophic doubt convinced eleven angry men to let a murderer go free.

KLDAVIS said...

This is NPR.

Paco Wové said...

"Here."

Not There.

Ann Althouse said...

@Paco Thanks. Fixed.

Laslo Spatula said...

"The Theater of the Unknowable" is the literary pretentious version of dropping the cow.

I am Laslo.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

After letting another person — the office "Dr. Spock" — sum up the evidence logically...

Dr. Spock? Was this evidence about proper child rearing?

BDNYC said...

I tried to get into this but couldn't. The issues raised by the case seemed too common. Pedestrian.

I had countless people at parties telling me about how the entire case against Adnan was the testimony of a drug dealer. As if that's so unusual. People seem to expect CSI quality physical evidence these days to sustain a conviction. Sometimes all you have is the word of a criminal. That's no reason to let a guilty man go free.

Shanna said...

So if I'm understanding this podcast, it was basically a true crime novel in radio form? Meh.

jr565 said...

this sounds like me with Michael Brown. I hear this great story about how he's this charming kid, this gentle giant who's off on his way to college. But then an evil racist white cop pulled him over for walking down the street then tried to grab him into his car, and then shot him in the back. Then when he turned and put his hands up the cop shot him. Great story.
Only I call bullshit. Reality gets in the way of the narrative. The problem with this series apparently is they chose the wrong person to make a series about, if they wanted an innocent guy. So too with Mike Brown (and Trayvon for that matter)

The Cracker Emcee said...

Sounds like your history with Obama.

jr565 said...

By the way, I like the new verification system. It's a lot easier to type the numbers than the weirdly placed letters that are hard to distinguish. Is that an m or an n with an l next to it?

Laslo Spatula said...

Best fiction ending EVER: Moses blows up the World.


"Chaos descends as gorillas advance on the humans and machine gun fire is everywhere. Are the apes going to set off the bomb out of ignorance? Will the mutant humans fulfill their deranged quest to destroy the world? Will Brent be the new hero and save the day? Well, the answer is none of the above because after Brent is shockingly gunned down by a gorilla, the bomb is set off by none other than Taylor himself. On purpose. Charlton Heston blows up the entire world.
At this point Orson Welles voice sounds over the events (no voiceovers have existed in the film prior) and tells us that the third planet in the solar system has gone silent… forever. Roll credits."

I am Laslo.

Michael said...

On the one hand, I agree, this is maybe the ultimate example of what makes me uncomfortable about the This American Life approach, that smug knowingness mixed with dorm room profundity.

On the other hand, as someone with a podcast, I can only laugh through my tears at the idea of someone seeking easy fame through doing a podcast!

Laslo Spatula said...

"The Theater of the Unknowable":

There is no such thing as a True Ending in a world where No Truths Exist.

I am Laslo, and I just made that up.

mrs.e said...

...I can only laugh through my tears at the idea of someone seeking easy fame through doing a podcast!

This.

Surprised that you had so much invested in this. BTW, I also hate to see my more unsavory character traits acted out in others.

Laslo Spatula said...

Re: " I also hate to see my more unsavory character traits acted out in others."

I like to see unsavory character traits acted out in Cheerleaders. They simply need guidance, the kind of guidance I can kindly provide them, along with the necessary spankings, of course.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

RE: "And — this is what was left unacknowledged — self-serving."

Writing not for an audience to appreciate, but to be seen as an Artist garnering Peer Respect.

In France this is Pierre Respect.

I am Laslo.

Bob Boyd said...

Koenig broke new ground on NPR. She actually let the desired narrative give way to the hard, cold facts. We should give her credit for that even if it took her weeks to do a ten minute piece and she couldn't bring herself to utter the bubble bursting words herself at the end.
I wish NPR would bring in a heartless Vulcan to tell it like it is at the end of all their news storys.

Ann Althouse said...

"Dr. Spock? Was this evidence about proper child rearing?"

Oh, fuck. I hate "Star Trek." Meade missed that too.

Fixed.

KLDAVIS said...

I appreciated the exposure of the sheer stupidity of juries. Having conducted mock trials and observed mock juries deliberating through 1-way mirrors, how quickly they ignore the salient points of a case can only be matched by their rush to introduce false information conjured from their minds.

The lady's reaction when she learns Jay didn't go to jail should be required listening for anyone who weasels out of jury duty.

Ann Althouse said...

@Bob Boyd Good point. That would be great!

tim maguire said...

Her voice...is an intoxicating one to have in your head

Oh good Lord! What man talks like this? Does he find it delicious too?

Jake said...

Well said. She copped out and made Dana do the dirty work. Bonus she saves a little face with Adnan and Rabia so she can still communicate with for "updates"

Meanwhile, what did you think of the IP lady, Dierdre Enright, wildly speculating about a serial killer and dismissing Koenig's doubts by telling Sarah to stick to the "big picture"?

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...

I usta enjoy "This American Life." It made the occasional car trip go faster. Then, one "chapter" turned out to be totally fabricated... and they told us so as soon as it concluded. (Of course, halfway through it, I called "bullshit.") But it tainted my enjoyment of the show thereafter. The rules had changed. It was no longer a show that presented artfully presented stories of life, but a showcase for "artists" and "poets." Ugh.

mccullough said...

Next time maybe she'll do the show in a Mike Hammer style instead of Miss Marple.

BDNYC said...

There's no way she could have come out and said he was guilty. If she had buried Adnan, she would have impaired her ability to get future subjects to speak to her.

That's actually a glaring problem with this.

tim maguire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignorance is Bliss said...

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...

...But it tainted my enjoyment of the show thereafter.

I used to listen to Paul Harvey's news presentation. He always included items that, while not significant, were interesting news bits non-the-less. One day he did an item on a concert hall redesign that greatly improved the acoustics. The finishing touch of the story was that the redesign was done by Bose, who was a long-time advertiser on his show. I couldn't decide if this was a legitimate news item that he included because he thought it was interesting, or a paid advertisement for Bose, or something in between.

I never listened to his show again.

Beldar said...

My practice is, and has been, in civil law for the last three decades. But in my judicial clerkship and then in pro bono work, I've read too many criminal trial transcripts, too many habeas corpus petitions and briefs, to want to invest the time necessary to listen to someone — even someone talented — obsess over one such case.

Rocketeer said...

Are you not entertained?

Donna said...

I think her work might have raised reasonable doubt in the first trial, but I don't think it is enough to have him exonerated post-trial where you nearly have to prove who did do it. I do think it is interesting that the Innocence Project is going to get DNA analysis of the evidence which was not done at the time.

Great storytelling, haunting theme music, interesting cliff-hangers. It was also enlightening to know how investigative storytellers go about uncovering material key to their story. I listened closely enough to know that Sarah never promised a resolved ending and, in fact, relentlessly said she didn't know how it would end.

HoodlumDoodlum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HoodlumDoodlum said...

Dr Spock: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LeaAljsy7s

Bruiser: Get Out of My House

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Should we have taken our pleasures here?

Don't see why not. Would our having not done so made Hae less dead?

Tina Trent said...

It's porn, using the bodies of dead crime victims as the fodder for fantasies of rescuing the ethnic minority convict through one's own imagined personal super-empathy.

It shouldn't be surprising anymore that the only satisfying fantasy these sorts of people have is fetishizing criminals and street thugs at arm's length -- hipsters making movie night of The Wire. It's the only (pseudo) virtue they're taught; there's a huge cultural reward system built in despite the need to essentially defame and lynch law enforcement and victims in pursuit of this pleasure.

I listened to a few of these shows on a road trip and then checked a few sources and found that the series was just innocence porn. There really wasn't a question of wrongful prosecution, just a fantasy strung along on low-rent insinuations of racism (lobbed with imprecision to avoid defamation charges) and the usual empathy for killers justified by the usual hate-filled identity politics.

Imagine the unchained hatred that would have been spewed had the victim been white.

Five million fanboys and girls could have learned the facts rather than indulge themselves this way, but the pleasure lay in getting off on imagining that they, too, could be seen as advocates for the sexily wrongfully convicted.

Unfortunately, this sort of narcissism requires the sacrifice of others. But the mob, like all mobs, chooses the people they're willing to string up to legitimate their beliefs. The irony of what they are doing completely eludes them.

-Peder said...

A legal question, if you please, how much is a jury required to stick to the state's case when deciding guilt? I've come down on the 'yeah, he's guilty' side too but the timeline provided by the state is crap. It seems apparent that they let Jay off the hook simply so they could get a conviction.
Can a jury say that the state is wrong but the defendant is still guilty?

-Peder said...

The attempts to make this into some kind 'things liberals like' is worrisome. This was an interesting story and I don't blame people for having actual doubts. If I'd been on the jury and listened to the case as presented, I think I probably would have fallen into the doubt camp. And I'm not liberal.
Yes, this was on NPR but God, can't we just NOT add the culture wars to every little thing?

Ann Althouse said...

@Peder The jury doesn't have to accept the prosecution's entire framework, only apply the legal burden of proof to the evidence that was admitted. The prosecution's argument isn't even part of the evidence.

-Peder said...

Thanks, Ann!

Laslo Spatula said...

This is certainly strange, commenting on a four-year-old post. Like the scenes in the movie 'Titanic' when they visually morph from the underwater wreckage of the interiors to the, well, above-water un-wreckage interiors. Or the other way around. Either way, that analogy already hit an iceberg, it seems.

I just listened to the podcast of this for the first time -- I vaguely remember when it was originally a 'thing', but I never felt pulled in -- I suspected editorial gymnastics and pirouettes at the edges, at least. Because there isn't much of a story if it is simply "Yeah: he did it. Guilty."

But I was looking for something to listen to on the work commute, and figured I'd be a late-adopter.

And: there really ISN'T much of a story if it is simply "Yeah: he did it. Guilty."

The pretzel chronology and the emotional thumb-on-the-scale gave a sense of possible discovery for a few episodes, but then it slid fully into the sleight-of-hand that Althouse nails here.

At some point in the series I found myself thinking of a book I read on the RFK assassination years ago, and listening to Adnan made me think of Sirhan Sirhan, and how innocence could all seem plausible if you really wanted to believe enough.

Anyway, on the plus side: I was expecting a lot of tentative minor-key acoustic guitar murmurings as accompaniment, but the music was better than my pessimistic expectations.

Reading Althouse's post, I think she is decidedly on-target. If it was four years ago I might've even segued this comment into a dialectic between Koenig and Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer", but -- alas -- I think that moment is gone.

And I think a few of my comments up there are still pretty funny; I usually pre-cringe to read things I casually wrote long before. "Pierre Respect" - oh, I am slapping my knee in mirth.

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...

Hi, Laslo. Thanks for adding that.

I do notice all the comments that go to old posts.