Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Serial host Sarah Koenig (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Serial didn't invent true crime, but it did legitimize it

Serial host Sarah Koenig (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: The Case Against Adnan Syed (HBO)

Although gory chapbooks detailing famous murder cases have been published in English since the 1500s, the true crime genre as we know it arose alongside modern police departments in the 19th century. In Victorian England, lovers of the salacious and morbid could not only read pamphlets and paperbacks about notorious crimes, they could also collect ceramic figurines of murderers like Maria and Frederick George Manning, a married couple who murdered Maria’s lover and hid his body under the floorboards of their London home in August 1849. Charles Dickens—whose serialized novels competed with true-crime stories for space in the pages of English newspapers—clucked his tongue at the rowdy crowd that showed up to watch the Mannings’ hanging, writing, “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man.” He wasn’t too disgusted to base a character in Bleak House on Maria Manning, however.

Dickens was just one voice in a chorus of principled objections to murder-as-popular culture that go back to the early Enlightenment. Originally, the critique was that peasants were having a little too much fun at public executions, drinking, eating, and enjoying the day off instead of solemnly absorbing the moral lessons ostensibly being imparted by their betters. When that practice ended, critiques turned to lurid plays based on real crimes—think Lifetime original movies, but on stage—and the cheap books known today as “penny dreadfuls.” And although the true crime craze never really stopped, throughout the 20th century these stories were primarily disseminated through tawdry magazines, mass-market paperbacks, and populist TV newsmagazine series that no self-styled intellectual would ever admit to enjoying. Then, there was Serial.

There had been podcasts about murder before Serial’s debut in October 2014. And it wasn’t the first example of true crime with a literary bent: In the early 20th century, Edmund Pearson published true-crime stories in the pages of Vanity Fair and other high-class periodicals, and like Serial, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood was originally told in installments. But there was something about the soothing sound of host Sarah Koenig’s measured, public-radio-trained voice over chirpy piano music that gave middle-class liberals permission to obsess over the 1999 death of Maryland teenager Hae Min Lee in a way that they’d never obsess over other such cases—at least, not openly. Unlike the self-consciously transgressive byproducts of Gen-X “serial killer culture,” this murder was okay to post about on Facebook, or to discuss openly with coworkers. This murder came with a pledge-drive tote bag.

Serial’s slightly self-depreciating, first-person storytelling was familiar from its parent series This American Life, which debuted on Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ in 1995. By 2007, that show had earned its own Onion headline, “‘This American Life’ Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence,” accompanied by an article gently poking fun at the tendency of white-collar neurotics to view their ordinary circumstances as worthy of a nationwide audience. Fast-forward seven more years, and Serial took the This American Life brand and expanded it far beyond the realm of, as The Onion sarcastically put it, “what it’s like to be a bilingual member of the ACLU trained in kite-making by a Japanese stepfather.” This wasn’t a mildly humorous anecdote about an eccentric roommate. It was literal life and death.

And Serial’s first season did take its subject more seriously than your average This American Life segment, removing the humorous, out-of-context quotes and pithy three-act structure of a typical episode. Still, although the pacing was slower and the tone more somber, the emphasis was still on Koenig and her obsession with the crime as much as the crime itself. The series also acknowledged when Koenig was out of her depth, making her relatable to listeners at home. This technique also created suspense, an aspect of storytelling that was very much on the Serial team’s mind as they taped and released episodes week by week—a departure from most self-contained podcast seasons, which are recorded well in advance of their release dates.

In fact, This American Life head Ira Glass explicitly compared Serial to buzzy cable dramas House Of Cards and Game Of Thrones in his introduction to the new series. Similarly, Serial co-creator Julie Snyder said in an interview with EW in November 2014:

In terms of a story, there’s a strong narrative. What I always really love about shows like Breaking Bad is that, even though the storyline is utterly insane, it feels real, because Walt and Jesse and Skyler have complexities, and there are deeper backstories behind their relationships. People are three-dimensional. They surprise you. And you care about what happens to them. That’s actually what you’re striving for in nonfiction journalism, too, right?

One of the key appeals of true crime stories—and this is also true of fictional thrillers and horror—is the vicarious thrill of observing someone else’s mortal peril from a safe distance. That’s especially true when one’s own life feels unstable, as evidenced by the parallel rise in popularity of the horror genre in the politically volatile back half of this decade. Wrapped in a familiar, respectable package designed to give listeners the same breathless rollercoaster ride as their favorite TV dramas, Serial thus provided a perfect respite from real-world problems. And it did so while also presenting an opportunity for political enlightenment to expound upon at brunch.

On that note, Serial gave the more privileged members of its audience the chance to peer into an aspect of American life they rarely encountered in their day-to-day lives: The bias and brokenness of the U.S. justice system. Although Lee was the victim of this particular crime, the majority of Serial’s first season revolved around the relative guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, who has been in jail for her murder since 2000. And the podcast did do its due diligence in investigating the many questions raised by Syed’s conviction—a condescending statement, perhaps, about a podcast that won a Peabody Award for “innovations of form and [a] compelling, drilling account of how guilt, truth, and reality are decided,” but a true one nonetheless.

Serial opened to effusive praise from traditional media outlets like The Telegraph, which called it The Wire of podcasts” and “the greatest podcast ever made.” And every new episode of Serial’s first season was met with an explosion of discussion—from which The A.V. Club was not immune, launching our own podcast, The Serial Serial, devoted exclusively to talking about another podcast. In the end, these discussions would grow beyond the show and its creators, with so many people digging into the details that Serial was no longer the most authoritative voice on Syed’s case. This further fueled dissatisfaction with season one’s inconclusive (but journalistically sound) ending, although, as Rabia Chaudry, the attorney and family friend of Syed’s who brought the case to Koenig in the first place, said in Time magazine:

I’ve been asked a number of times if I regret taking the case to her. On that count, I say absolutely not. As disheartening as it is that no smoking gun was found, the case has ironically been brought back to life because of the mud, not in spite of it. If reasonable doubt existed 15 years ago, it abounds now.

All the while, there were eye rolls along the edges of the phenomenon from people unsurprised by the idea that a Muslim teenager might have been wrongfully convicted of murder. In December 2014, Michael Che joked on SNL’s Weekend Update, “this week, the popular NPR podcast Serial finished its 12-episode run. For much more on this story, talk to white people.” And alongside articles crowing about the boost Serial had given to podcasting generally, there were others painting the podcast as a highly problematic example of white privilege disseminated by out-of-touch liberals. Jay Caspian Kang wrote in The Awl that Koenig was barging into immigrant communities and “subjecting it all to that inimitable This American Life process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.” Julia Carrie Wong further argued in Buzzfeed that Serial furthered the “model minority” myth and stoked anti-Black racism by pitting the Pakistani-American Syed against the Black witness, Jay, whose testimony was key in his conviction. The bourgeoisie who once looked down their noses at trashy true-crime TV were finding their own form of murder-as-entertainment challenged.

None of these critiques could stop the dam from bursting, though. Although, as previously mentioned, podcasting wasn’t new in 2014, Serial was the first podcast big enough to bleed through into the popular consciousness. A 2014 CNN article crows that Serial reached five million downloads faster than any podcast in history, and averaged 2.2 million downloads per episode—still great numbers for podcasting. (That number had climbed to a staggering 75 million downloads overall by March of 2015.) That same article says 40 million people, or about 15% of the U.S. population, regularly listened to podcasts in 2014. Now, 32% of Americans, or about 90 million people, listen to a podcast at least once a month, according to Edison Research’s latest numbers. Nearly a quarter of respondents to a Serial subscribers’ poll said it was the first podcast they’d ever listened to. But the show undoubtedly garnered more attention from other forms of media than any podcast before it, catching the attention of advertisers who started sinking money into podcast ads and fueling the resulting boom.

Now, there are dozens of longform crime-based podcasts in the Serial mold, like the CBC’s Uncover and Wondery’s Dirty John and Dr. Death. And although there are exceptions, like Payne Lindsey’s homegrown podcasting empire, the demands of serialized storytelling mean that these podcasts tend to come from bigger and more established news outlets, as opposed to the DIY nature of breezy, personality-based podcasts in the My Favorite Murder mold. A search for “true crime” on Apple Podcasts turns up hundreds of such MFM-inspired shows with names like True Crime All The Time and Dark Poutine, a podcast devoted entirely to Canadian crimes.

TV also took up the deep-dive mantle, grabbing the tail of the Serial behemoth and riding it to fame first with The Jinx on HBO in February of 2015 and then Making A Murderer on Netflix in December of that year. Like Serial, both of these series framed their length and thoroughness as a sort of moral virtue, even though, unlike Koenig, their creators had already made up their minds about their respective cases before the shows aired. As more of these shows started trickling out, public interest in each individual case waned, and now a documentary series full of shocking miscarriages of justice can drop on Netflix with very little fanfare.

But as the market for real-life tragedy gets ever more saturated, the fascination with Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed remains strong. A sequel series laying out the argument for Syed’s guilt debuted on HBO in March, and the subreddit devoted to the case remains active as of November 2019, five years after the show’s debut. Most importantly, a Maryland judge vacated Syed’s conviction in 2016 and granted him a new trial where Asia McClain, a witness and major character on Serial’s first season, would finally give her testimony in court. That order was overturned this year, and Syed’s attorneys are currently on their second attempt to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. No longer subject to breathless play-by-plays in national outlets, he’s back to being a local news story.

Serial, meanwhile, has moved on. Its latest season, which debuted last year, addressed criticisms of the first by taking on institutional inequality as its subject, through the medium of the year Koenig spent exploring the inner workings of Cleveland criminal courts. Post-Serial true-crime storytelling has made efforts to move beyond Nancy Grace and her fixation on missing sorority girls, introducing terms like “the less dead” (e.g., the tendency by media and law enforcement to ignore the deaths of marginalized people, like Black women, sex workers, and trans people) into listeners’ vocabularies. That being said, the fetishization of rapist serial killer Ted Bundy as a sex symbol re-emerged on Twitter this spring, indicating that the pendulum has already begun to swing back towards gleeful bad taste.

The rot underneath even the most highbrow true-crime series speaks to an essential question about the genre: Is it possible to have a progressive view of true crime? Is all this talk of honoring victims and seeking justice just cover for ghoulish rubbernecking? Yes and no: Crimecon, a touring true crime festival sponsored by Oxygen, was criticized for an exhibit at this year’s convention where attendees could take novelty photos in a fake jail cell, about the whitest selfie opportunity in existence. At the same time, official T-shirts from the con read “practically a detective” and “practically a profiler,” pointing to an earnest, if potentially misguided, desire to bring order and justice to a world full of chaos and tragedy.

Ironically enough, the core audience for these stories about dead women is composed of living ones: A Reddit survey earlier this year found that 75 percent of self-professed true-crime podcast listeners are women, and considering Reddit is male dominated on the whole, the actual percentage may be higher. Following Koenig’s lead, women also make up a significant portion of true-crime podcast hosts, from big names like My Favorite Murder’s Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark to smaller podcasts like Wine & Crime and Southern Fried True Crime. Many of these women report that self-imposed exposure therapy via true crime is an effective treatment for the anxiety of moving through the world in a female body, transforming free-floating fear into a contained threat that can be deconstructed and understood.

But, much like the naïveté of white listeners who had never considered that maybe the system doesn’t work before hearing about it on Serial, it’s easier to view real-life murders as abstract what-ifs if it’s not your family members under discussion. Hae Min Lee’s family significantly did not participate in Serial season one, but her brother logged on to the Serial subreddit in 2014, where he wrote:

I won’t be answering any questions because... TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heart attack when she got the news that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through.