You're asking the wrong questions about Serial

Commentary: The super popular Serial podcast has concluded its first season, but was there a conclusion? Crave's Eric Mack draws a few, including some you probably haven't heard. Warning: spoilers.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
7 min read

Spoilers ahead: If you haven't yet listened to the final episode of Serial's first season, This American Life's wildly popular spin-off podcast, you'll want to download or stream it before reading this, or risk ruining the final installment.

Still not sure if he's guilty, but we're left to wonder if we all should be indicted for our Serial obsession. Screenshot by CNET

Did Adnan Syed murder his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when they were both in high school in Baltimore in 1999? Or was it Woodlawn High School's own self-styled Dennis Rodman-esque sketchy dude, Jay? Or maybe the convicted criminal later linked to the death of another young Asian woman in Baltimore who was released from prison less than two weeks before Lee's death? Oh, and what is "truth," anyway, and are there such things as "facts"?

These are some of the central questions that the wildly popular Serial podcast raises, investigates and then comes nowhere near answering, to the surprise of absolutely no one who listened from the beginning.

This spawns yet another line of questioning: Why Serial? Why did it become a global obsession? That's the real question I'm interested in finding an answer to, and I'll do it here, in this post, over the course of the next several paragraphs.

Join me as I eat the entire Serial phenomenon for breakfast, then digest it and try to extract its larger meaning from whatever the equivalent of the large intestine would be in this metaphor, which, like Serial itself, does not come to an adequate conclusion.

I call it Serial Cereal.

The beginning

From CBS Interactive, CNET and Crave, Serial Cereal is the result of an investigation into the "real" story behind why I, and so many others, just spent the fall of 2014 devoting a significant chunk of our time and energy to a tragic story with no apparent resolution in sight.

This story is sponsored by a guy who fell asleep listening to me ramble on about the show last night. I don't know his name, but I consider him my sponsor, helping me deal with the symptoms of withdrawal from my serious Serial addiction. For our purposes, let's call him MailKimp.

Let's start from the beginning.

The case of Serial and its inevitable success was first brought to my attention by an email that I almost missed completely in September of 2014. You see, I'm a Gmail user, and Gmail sorts your email into "Important" and "Not Important" messages. Today we have the benefit of some knowledge that we didn't have back in 1999 -- that most emails are about as unreliable and useless as cell phone call records. Nonetheless, I keep coming back to that email -- it was the spammy newsletter from my Android podcasting app that recommends new shows worth subscribing to.

It recommended a new show from This American Life called Serial. I checked the podcast feed for This American Life, but I could find no record of a new show there. I went to the website of This American Life's home station, WBEZ in Chicago, and listened to the online stream. There was no record in the live radio stream of a new podcast. Strange.

This made me think about the nature of memory and how we remember what we remember. Also, how memories can change over time. Can we even be trusted to remember exactly what we were doing 5 minutes ago, let alone 15 years ago?

So, like I was saying, I was unable to locate any evidence that there was ever any Cereal in This Old House on WYCC, Chicago's PBS station.

But I did come across a link to a similarly named radio show called This American Life that devoted one of its episodes to introducing Serial. I went to my local Best Buy to pick up a new smartphone I could use to download the podcast, because I had loaned mine to a known teenage drug dealer with a habit of lying and making up stories. I activated the phone right there in the Best Buy, downloaded the episode and listened. It was the show my email had described. There, inside the Best Buy, I realized the new podcast had been inside the radio show all along.

More on what I heard after the below subheading, in the next paragraph of Serial Cereal.

If I had instrumental music, it would start here

Over the past few months, I've listened to all the episodes of Serial, including the finale, which posted Thursday morning. I've listened to or watched as many of the parodies as I can find as well (see one for season 2 at the bottom of this post). I read stories about the show and fell into the Serial subreddit rabbit hole a few times, and I listened to the podcasts about Serial, even the really annoying ones by people clearly less experienced with the way the world works who accused Sarah Koenig of being inexperienced with how the world works.

I've been round and round with the key facts of this case: 1. It was clear from the third episode that there would be no satisfying solution to the mystery of Hae's murder. 2. As the show grew in popularity, the impending lack of a resolution to the story became even more clear. 3. Toward the end of the show, Koenig asked for donations to fund a second season of what was shaping up to be a show without a satisfying ending, and she received more than enough.

It just didn't add up.

Maybe it's time for a gut check. Maybe it's time to get real about what was actually revealed in a book-length series about a 15-year-old murder. I'm going to do that next here in the Serial Cereal... a little below this line and just to the right of some links to related stories that aren't really related to this story, but they will help me feed my family if you click on them.

Ever since my editor suggested that I should reconsider sneaking into this piece my hypothesis that the CIA is somehow responsible for Serial's success, I've been thinking about what this podcast's popularity really says about us as individuals -- and as a society.

I think about it when I'm not repeatedly reloading Serial subreddit pages and wondering if the mutually obsessed might have made the same "connections" I have between Sarah Koenig's stepfather -- the late, great author Peter Mathiessen who started the venerable Paris Review as his CIA cover back in the early 1950s -- and the current need for a new cultural phenomenon to distract the public from whatever the CIA might be up to of late.

For example, I think about whether it's a good idea for people who tend toward paranoia to listen to Serial. Probably not, but it doesn't matter anyway because Koenig's indirect CIA connections -- while totally true -- are just an interesting but ultimately irrelevant titbit I threw in to get your attention, like an eyewitness who also just happens to be a streaker.

So do I have an ending to this post? Have I figured out why Serial exists and why it became so popular?

I actually think Serial tells us that we are sick people. You, me, Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass, the whole MailChimp team -- we all just had the podcasting equivalent of playing three months of the original Pitfall game for Atari. There's no ending to the game, it just keeps going and going until you get eaten by another 8-bit alligator or fall in the next tar pit.

The only thing is, this wasn't a game -- it was a true story about the horrible murder of a real teenage girl at the very least, with perhaps the addition of a complete miscarriage of justice and a killer still walking free in the world we all live in at the very worst.

I don't fault Koenig or This American Life for any of this. The entire model of modern journalism is based on making important (and probably more not-so-important) news and information entertaining enough that we'll want to actually consume it. And lots of that news and information is often tragic.

So as a member of the jury of public opinion I would vote to acquit Koenig and Serial on charges of cynically exploiting tragedy for entertainment purposes. I have to, it's just the way our society works, sick as it may sometimes seem.

So I guess maybe that's why Serial exists. A sleeping demon was summoned so that we could try to exorcise it again, but this time on a bigger stage before a much larger audience. The exorcism failed like we knew it would, but perhaps at least we learned something along the way.

The verdict

I was able to find someone guilty in my investigation of Serial's popularity. As it turns out, it's me, just like the rest of you who are guilty of obsessing over the show and the story of a tragic crime, because it offers avenues to affirmation of just about every worldview you can imagine.

Maybe you think people are inherently good. Then it's easy to connect the Serial dots in a way that paints Syed as an innocent victim of a broken justice system. Listening to Serial, I realized I fall into this camp. Even Thursday morning, I was telling my editor that the Serial hypothesis that appeals to me most is the one in which Hae was killed accidentally in some kind of extreme strangulation play.

That last sentence just looks ridiculous on my screen, but it allows me to believe as a father of a young girl that there is at least one less person out there capable of deliberately murdering a young woman.

Head over to the Serial subreddit and you'll see that there are numerous other theories about Hae's murder, and I bet that most of them say more about the person proposing them than the actual crime itself. Maybe you're cynical about our justice system, or the police? No matter your feelings about the world, there's a way to interpret Serial according to those prejudices, including those of you who think the CIA is behind literally everything.