Reality TV has been a booming industry in America for a while. Something about publicizing people’s lives and personal problems is entertaining. Films, shows, and now podcasts, on real court cases are also considered forms of reality entertainment. As in the case of reality TV, nonfiction legal texts follow certain storytelling patterns and themes familiar to their fiction counterparts. The storyline of texts in the legal genre follow typical patterns or include stock characters. What is lost and what is gained when entertainment platforms, mimicking fictional depictions of legal stories, attempt to take on serious cases of legal complexity and deliver them to an audience with average knowledge on the legal system? The Serial podcast is an interesting piece to analyze in this regard because it both strays from typical legal genre themes and also abides by them. By doing so, Serial transcends the meaning of the genre standards it follows.
Professors McCann and Haltom discuss a recurring theme of the legal fiction genre in their article, Ordinary Heroes vs. Failed Lawyers. In the article, the professors analyze several Hollywood films about court trials. They discuss the way these films have a pattern of depicting lawyers as “unqualified moral heroes,” parallel with ordinary people competent in the field of law because of their ability to exercise common sense and moral reasoning. The authors understand that the idea of portraying ordinary people as successful in achieving their motives in court is not a bad thing. But they argue that “the tendency to focus attention on professional elites portrayed as heartless, often feckless villains…obscures [their] distinctive aspirations and variable achievements.” When films and other legal texts emphasize professionals, and in this case lawyers and other law officials, as antagonists incompetent in their field because of their elitism, people begin to disvalue the need for professionals.
The theme of ordinary heroes in other genres is not unfamiliar; it is a common fact that people like to hear about ordinary and average people accomplishing feats that even professionals can’t complete. But it is not necessary to belittle the importance of professionals in order to raise the level of attention given to the accomplishments of ordinary people. When legal films and other texts want to celebrate the achievements of ordinary heroes, they do so by simultaneously detracting from the importance of lawyers and other law professionals. This anti-professionalism leads people to believe that there is not a need for law professionals and that ordinary people can take legal actions alone.
Sarah Koenig, the narrator of Serial, can be viewed as the ordinary hero in Adnan Syed’s story. The Serial podcast was created when Koenig was approached by Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and family friend of Adnan Syed, who hoped Koenig could take a look at Adnan’s case. Koenig decided to take on the task of attempting to figure out the details of the day Hae Min Lee went missing. Although Koenig is portrayed as the typical ordinary hero—a journalist with no particular legal background attempting to crack a case 15 years after the event—two aspects of the podcast prevent it from falling into having the same implications discussed above.
Sarah Koenig makes clear in the introduction of the first episode that she is not attempting to portray herself as a detective or crime reporter; “I’m not a detective or a private investigator…” This is an important clarification because Koenig is pointing out that she is not trying to do a job she thinks other professionals did not do well. This idea carries through throughout the season as Koenig constantly checks in with several professionals like lawyers, detectives, and investigators, to ask for their point of view on her speculations. For example, in the first episode, when Koenig learns about Asia McLean, a very probable alibi for Adnan, she becomes extremely skeptical to why Adnan’s defense lawyer did not bring Asia to testify at trial. But before Koenig jumps to conclusions, she “put the question to a few defense attorneys” to verify her doubts. Whenever Koenig has a speculation or thought she is unsure about, she talks to a professional in that field. She grounds the idea that listening to professionals in the field is necessary to making proper conclusions and informed opinions. By doing so, Koenig establishes herself as simply the narrator, a person who is taking her audience through the story of the case and trial, rather than building the story off of opinions of her own. This is the second characteristic of the podcast that sets it aside from other true crime narrations.
Koenig’s engaging way of storytelling is arguably one of the main reasons Serial became so popular. Serial is a “thoughtful exploration of real, recognizable people,” Sarah Larson states in her New Yorker article, “Serial”: The Podcast We’ve Been Waiting For. While Koenig maintains this idea of exploration throughout the season, listeners naturally hoped Koenig would come across a smoking piece of evidence that would confirm or deny Adnan’s innocence. But Koenig ends the season on a note of reflection rather than a firm stance; “As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed…but…as a human being walking down the street…If you ask me to swear that Adnan is innocent, I couldn’t do it.” By mentioning her decision to acquit Adnan while not being completely sure of his innocence was an important step in establishing to her audience the nuances of real court cases.
Sarah Koenig’s role as an ordinary hero that depends on the advice of legal professionals and her contrasting stances of herself as a juror and as regular human being highlight two important, interlinked lessons for audiences. Koenig is able to portray throughout the season that while considering morality is important when it comes to trials, the decisions of jurors, prosecutors, lawyers, and other positions in court are going to depend on different factors. While to an ordinary person it may have seemed unreasonable for a defense attorney to not bring a possible alibi to trial, the lawyers Koenig contacts explain that there are plausible reasons for a defense attorney to do so. Koenig shows her audience that while the jury (and some audience members) might have felt like Adnan was guilty, they are responsible for only making a decision that is evidently beyond reasonable doubt, even if that means they have to feel like they are letting a guilty man free. Serial gave Sarah Koenig the opportunity to act as an ordinary hero who does not try to show listeners that she can outshine legal professionals, rather to use her ordinary role to bring attention to the nuances and complexities of true crime.
A special thanks to Professor Larissa Werhnyak for teaching her class on Trials and Popular Culture.