There's been great public acclaim for Serial, a podcast spun off from This American Life. Serial is long-form journalism, an unhurried exploration of a single true crime, meted out over many episodes. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way it unfolds in real time; as the episodes have played, more people with knowledge of the events have come forward, offering their own personal testimonies, which have found their way into subsequent episodes. Serial is unfolding before our ears, unlike most reporting, which comes to us tied up into a fairly concise narrative arcs, the way we like our stories.
I don't share quite the same fascination with the series, although I've listened to each episode so far. This season of Serial is exploring the many inconsistencies and uncertainties that swarm around a murder case, but I no longer think of it as casting serious doubt on the guilt of the man who was convicted for the crime. Rather, it's begun to underscore the fact that few events are remembered the same way by anyone involved. This persistent inconsistency has led to the development of conspiracy theories for virtually every major event in the public eye. It's simply impossible to reconcile all evidence and testimony into a single narrative. We want a story that re-assembles the debris field of facts, perceptions, body parts, and bits of shrapnel from our exploded sense of stability. Books, films, television, video games, and even journalism tell us there will be a story, if we just look hard enough.
The problem: look hard enough at the pattern on a piece of a toast, and there's Jesus. Your mind is wired to assemble these patterns. Looking at a contrary strand of evidence, your tendency is to say to yourself "it doesn't make sense unless…" But there is a big unless. Unless it just doesn't make a lot of sense, which many, many things don't.
Serial reminds me of the film Room 237, which explores the different theories that film buffs hold about Kubrick's movie The Shining. It's about the Native American genocide! It's about the fake moon landing! The film is detail-rich, and it's well known that Kubrick was a painfully detail-oriented director who micromanaged minute details in the final film. There must be a reason that the Indian appears on the cans of baking powder, or that Jack types on a German typewriter that changes color during the course of the movie. There must be a story behind the story!
Probably not. And this is where I've begun to feel that Serial is running too long, making a point that's tangential to what it strives to explore. These things are messy. Human recall is extraordinarily fallible. People distort the truth, consciously or not, for more reasons than we can explore in hours of podcasts. And some evidence just won't add up, ever. If you look hard enough at anything of significance - the events of 9/11, a shocking murder, the spread of a terrifying disease - you'll see weird disturbances in the pattern. Perhaps it will seethe and roil and compose itself into a new, more disturbing shape. Then, perhaps you'll see the face of something chaotic and frightening, that mocks our ability make sense of our days.