SJ’s World

You’re just living in it

If I were going to write a podcast script, it’d probably go a little like this:

  • Intro:
    Host: Hey, everybody! Welcome to Podcast Junkie, where we review your favorite— and least favorite— podcasts. This week, we’ve got SJ Foley here with us to talk about Serial: Season One.
    SJ: Hello, hello! Happy to be here. Happy to be talking about Serial, too.
    Host: I mean, there’s so much to get into, right?
    SJ: So, so much. There was a LOT going on. But maybe we can start with a little intro to the show, for people who haven’t listened yet.
    Host: Go ahead, tell the people what they need to know!
    SJ: Oh me? Okay, okay, throwing me right into the deep-end.
    Host: Right, like we haven’t prepped for this. Y’all should know— this is SJ’s first time recording a podcast, so she’s a little nervous. But yeah, I’m throwing you right into the deep-end. Sink or swim!
    SJ: Swim it is. So, Serial: Season One. First off, the entire season (and I think the next two seasons, as well) is done by Sarah Koenig, who I’m now in love with.
    Host: It’s the voice.
    SJ: It’s definitely the voice. She’s so soothing! She also comes across as so trustworthy, but I’ll get into that a bit more later. Anyways, I digress.
    So, Sarah is approached by Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and author, to look over the 1999 murder of high-school senior, Hae Min Lee, and the ensuing murder conviction of Adnan Syed. Rabia Chaudry, who is the older sister of a good friend of Adnan’s, believes that Adnan was wrongfully convicted. And so Sarah Koenig, kind of won over by Rabia and her telling of the entire case, decides to look a bit more closely into the murder of Hae Min Lee, and into case against Adnan Syed. The first season of Serial covers her year-long deep dive into the facts of the case. But before we get into the podcast itself, we have to talk about the facts of the murder.
  • Topic 1: The Facts of the Murder
    SJ: So, on January 13th, 1999, when Hae Min Lee doesn’t show up to pick up her 6-year-old cousin after school, her family knows something is wrong. They immediately report her missing. Her car, too, is missing— and, because of this, many assumed Hae Lee had simply up and left town, as she had told many friends she might do some day. Unfortunately, less than a month later on February 9th, Hae Lee’s body was found in Leakin Park, buried in a shallow grave. The cause of death was determined to be manual strangulation. Police now know for sure that they have a murderer to find.
    Host: Three days after Hae’s body was found, the police receive two anonymous phone calls to look into Adnan Syed as a suspect. Adnan is an ex-boyfriend of Hae’s. In fact, the pair had broken up really recently—
    SJ: In December, before Hae goes missing in January.
    Host: Right, really recently. And some say they were on good terms, some say Adnan was… well, pissed about the break-up. But either way, the police do begin looking into Adnan and, less than 3 weeks later, Adnan is woken up in the early morning by police officers telling him to get dressed. He’s charged with murder in the first-degree. He’s 17 at the time, but he is tried as an adult. Almost exactly a year after his arrest, and after two trials— the first ended in a mistrial— Adnan is convicted of murder in the first-degree on February 25th, 2000. In June of the same year, he’s sentenced to life plus 30 years by a Judge Wanda K. Heard.
    SJ: Right away, the sentence makes me feel so… icky.
    Host: Yeah… yeah. It’s brutal, for sure.
    SJ: I mean, he’s 17. 17. And he’s tried as an adult, which already sucks, and then he’s given life, which sucks even more, and then it’s like, “well let’s really stick it to him.” And he gets life plus 30 years?! Your word was exactly right— it’s brutal.
    Host: Well, at the same time, he’s convicted of planning out and executing the murder of an 18-year-old. You could definitely argue that the punishment fits the crime.
    SJ: No, you’re right. It does still rub me wrong, though— although that might speak more to Sarah Koenig’s approach to telling the story.
  • Topic 2: Sarah Koenig’s Approach to the Story
    SJ: Which, I have to say before we even get into the details of the trials and the case against Adnan: Sarah’s perspective on this story was one of the most interesting parts about this podcast for me.
    Host: Well, yeah, for me too, because it’s not your typical crime-show podcast.
    SJ: No, it’s really not! And listen, I love a good crime show podcast. My Favorite Murder is probably my favorite podcast.
    Host: Ooo, that IS a good one.
    SJ: I know, right? Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff have kept me sane on many loooong drives.
    Host: They’re so funny. Honestly an iconic duo.
    SJ: Yeah, to say the least. BUT.
    Host: But. If you’re wanting a straight-up true-crime podcast, this ain’t that.
    SJ: Right, exactly. It took a more… legal approach, I guess, and I really appreciated that.
    Host: Yeah, no, I agree. It’s less about “here’s what happened and here’s how they found the murderer and here’s how the murderer did it” and more about “here’s how the case was built against Adnan Syed.” It’s a different approach, for sure.
    SJ: And, I think, it’s an approach that still honored Hae Lee as the center of the story.
    Host: You think?
    SJ: Yeah, I really do. You don’t?
    Host: Ehhh, not really. I mean, it definitely centers Adnan Syed. Like you said, this is more the story how he came to be convicted, and whether or not that conviction was fair. Given Sarah’s legal approach to the story, the story has to center him. And I think it does. We literally get to hear from him. I don’t think there’s an episode that doesn’t include a prison call with Adnan. And Sarah clearly likes him, and wants to believe him.
    SJ: That’s true, and I’m pretty sure she comes right out with that, that she really wants to believe him.
    Host: Right, so I do think her approach centers Adnan. But I don’t think it centers him in a way that does any harm to Hae Min Lee. Sarah gives him a fair shake. She’s not overly partial to him. And I’m sure that there are people who would disagree with that, people close to Hae who think that this podcast dug up skeletons that deserve to stay buried, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true or fair, given what Sarah ends up uncovering about his trials.
    SJ: Well, okay, I see what you’re saying. It definitely does center Adnan more than Hae Min Lee, and yeah, of course I can see people taking issue with that. I guess my point was more that it doesn’t… I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t lose sight of the tragedy the way that so many true crime shows seem to. Sarah Koenig never seems to forget that, at the center of all of this, there’s an 18-year-old girl who was cruelly killed.
    Take for instance— and I know this isn’t a podcast but stay with me— “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Or even “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”
    Host: Wasn’t that the Zac Efron mini-series?
    SJ: Yeah, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is the Ted Bundy biopic, where Zac Efron plays Bundy. And Monster is, obviously, the Dahmer mini-series. Evan Peters plays Dahmer on that one. And with both of these, you have the lives of these awful, vicious serial-killers kind of put under the microscope, with these handsome Hollywood actors taking on the role. And, somehow, the serial-killer becomes not only central to the story, but also seems to over-shadow the victims. The show itself loses sight of the tragedy and the loss of all these people, and instead focuses on the horror of these psyches, and how scary it is that these men can be so duplicitous and evil.
    Host: Right, I see what you’re saying.
    SJ: So I guess insofar as it’s taking the legal approach to the case, yeah, it does center Adnan. But it doesn’t glorify him at the expense of Hae Min Lee. At least, I don’t think it does.
    Host: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there. Actually, as you’re talking, I’m thinking: maybe it doesn’t even center Adnan. Maybe it centers justice.
    SJ: Oooh, I like that. I think that’s good. Justice for Adnan? Or for Hae Min Lee?
    Host: I think it’s about justice for them both, and that’s part of what makes it work so well as a podcast.
  • Topic 3: The Innocence Project Phone Calls (Episode 7)
    SJ: I agree, and I actually want to go back to something you said earlier, which we kind of glossed over. You said that Sarah gives Adnan a fair shake—
    Host: Yeah, that she doesn’t just assume he’s innocent, even though the presumption of innocence is usually where you’d expect someone to start with this sort of case. It never feels like she’s trying to force the facts to fit that narrative, but like she’s trying to gather the evidence and let it tell the story of that day on its own.
    SJ: Right. And I agree with you, with a big but.
    Host: *Hums Baby Got Back*
    SJ: Are you… really? Okay. I think Sarah WANTS him to be innocent, and that comes through really, really clearly.
    Host: Yes, absolutely.
    SJ: Those phone calls in episode 7, where she’s speaking to the professor working on the innocence project? And the students she works with? I loved those phone calls so much, I thought they added SO much to the story. In fact, I think the entire story changes— maybe even falls apart— without this moment. Because in that call, you can feel both how desperate Sarah is for Adnan to be innocent and how conflicted she is. She wants to believe him, but she doesn’t actually know if she does.
    Host: Yeah, those calls were a really great moment. And timed really well, within the overall shape of the podcast.
    SJ: Yes! As a listener, I was getting to this point where I was starting to think: ‘Oh shit, did he do it?’
    Host: Right, same. And then those calls come in, and you feel that Sarah is conflicted right alongside you, and there’s a sort of relief in that.
    SJ: Yes!!! And I think this is where I really began to love her as a storyteller. You feel, so clearly, how invested she is in the story, which makes you lean in a little harder. And, like we keep saying, you feel how badly she wants him to be innocent AND how unsure she is that he IS innocent, AND how worried she is that she might be dedicating all this time and energy to an absolute liar.
    Host: A big yes to that last bit. It feels like she’s very worried about the waste of time and energy, as well as the damage done if Adnan is, actually, guilty.
    SJ: And all of those big, huge, conflicting feelings Sarah’s having… they made me TRUST her like never before.
    Host: Oh, interesting.
    SJ: Yeah. Something about how relentlessly she looks for the truth, despite what she wants— and let’s not forget she ends up investing a year into this story, which would kind of… suck if Adnan were really guilty— it just makes her really believable.
    Host: You also get, in that episode, the phone calls where Adnan sort of lashes out a bit.
    SJ: Yes! For the first time, he presents himself as a bit more complex.
    Host: You don’t really like Adnan much in episode seven, I don’t think.
    SJ: Really? Well, actually— okay, yeah. He doesn’t come across super well. But, at the same time, he also becomes believable in this episode. He’s more dynamic, which makes him feel more real, which makes him feel more… more believable.
  • Topic 4: The website, Don, and Jay
    SJ: So should we talk about whether or not we DO believe Adnan?
    Host: Yes, but first, I want to talk a little bit about how the story is actually organized. And about the website, which I think added a lot to the podcast.
    SJ: Yes, I agree! I’ve never really thought about podcasts as involving anything you can’t… listen to, but the website was a really nice touch for this one.
    Host: I really enjoyed interacting with the pieces of evidence and notes and letters that Sarah referenced.
    SJ: Yes, me too.
    Host: It helped a lot to make the story real for me.
    SJ: Yeah, same. There were times when it was almost unnerving though. The note from Hae to Don really sat heavy on me. That was hard to see.
    Host: Ah Don! I wish there had been more about Don!
    SJ: Yeah, I actually found that really odd.
    Host: I mean, my understanding is she didn’t really waste her time because (1) he wouldn’t be interviewed for the story, and (2) he had been cleared completely by the police because he had a rock solid alibi. And I get that.
    SJ: Yeah. Yeah, I guess.
    Host: Right, I guess! Because that’s still seems so important— he was Hae Min Lee’s boyfriend AT the time of her murder, he was much older than her, she was supposed to be seeing him that day… it just seemed like it merited more attention.
    SJ: Again, I’m with you. I think the fact that she didn’t include an episode looking at him— or really any other suspect, other than Jay, who I wouldn’t even call a suspect— was an ethical choice more than anything else. His alibi had been confirmed.
    Host: I’d call Jay a weirdo.
    SJ: Oh gosh, Jay was such a… yeah, weirdo. Jay feels like the least real part of this story. He added such an element of absurdism to the whole case.
    Host: Yeah, everything about Jay— from the way he came forward, to the changing stories, to the testimony— I didn’t know what to make of him!
    SJ: I didn’t either. And I think Sarah tried, but she didn’t really know what to make of him either. And I wish she would have leaned into that a bit more, I guess.
    Host: What do you mean?
    SJ: I mean, you have this utterly off-the-wall kind of character. He confuses the story— but in a way that makes her overall point clearer. As does the piece about
  • Topic 5: The overall message.
    Host: And what is, pray tell, Sarah’s overall point?
    SJ: Ah, we’ve gotten to the good stuff. I think, overall, the season doesn’t make the case that Adnan is innocent; it makes the case that there is not enough evidence against him, and that he was wrongfully convicted.
    Host: And what do you think? Does she make her case? Or, I guess, Adnan’s case?
    SJ: You know, I think she does successfully show that Adnan shouldn’t have been convicted. Between the cell-tower testimony, Jay’s constantly changing stories, the fact that so much of the evidence was never properly tested, the alibi witness who was never asked to testify, and the lawyer falling apart at the seams, I’m actually quite horrified that he was ever convicted. There just wasn’t enough evidence.
    Host: Actually, that bit about the alibi witness— Asia— that comes up in the very first episode, doesn’t it?
    SJ: Yeah, it does.
    Host: Which was a smart decision. It’s such a brilliant way to open up the entire story, because that letter from Asia was definitely enough to convince me that his case should have been reopened. And so it makes sense that Sarah would reopen it, even in this podcasty way, with us.
    SJ: Yeah, the fact that the judge ruled that the lawyer made a strategic decision by not including Asia’s testimony baffled me. Because she didn’t even reach out to Asia!
    Host: Right.
    SJ: I think you hit the nail on the head. It was a really smart way to open up the entire podcast. And then every piece that follows— which, most of the story is told chronologically from that point forward— really drives home the point. There was never enough evidence to convict him, and his lawyer messed up.
    What do you think?
    Host: I’m not sure he’s innocent.
    SJ: Me neither.
    Host: I think he probably is, but I won’t say for certain. I do think, like you, there wasn’t enough to convict him. A shady witness with a lawyer who was obtained for him by the state prosecutor does not, in my opinion, make for a good witness.
    SJ: Oh my gosh, we didn’t even get to talk about that moment. That was a jaw-dropping moment for me. Maybe this is evidence that I watch too much Suits, but I was thinking “ask for a dismissal, ask for a dismissal,” and it just… never comes.
    Host: Which, again, drives home the idea that he wasn’t properly defended.
    SJ: Yeah, I agree.
    Host: So, we both basically came to the same conclusion as Sarah Koenig did, though maybe that’s no surprise.
    SJ: She told her story well, okay! And I respected the way she ended it so much. She wasn’t sure he was innocent, not 100% sure, anyways. But she IS sure that he shouldn’t have been convicted, and that’s enough for her to know he shouldn’t be in jail. And, despite everything, there’s so much hope there. She hopes he’s innocent. She hopes he gets out.
    Host: Hope, hope, hope.
    SJ: Which is, truth be told, a beautiful way to end a story.
    Host: Well, not that it’s really the end.
    SJ: No, that’s true. There’s the follow-up episode, which I don’t necessarily consider part of the actual season.
    Host: Yeah, I agree. It’s a bonus, even set apart on the page.
    SJ: Can I tell you how much I appreciated the way it was sort of hidden on the page?? It kept the entire story from being spoiled for me.
    Host: That’s such a good point, actually.
    SJ: No spoilers here.
    Host: Well, we do have to spoil it. Because the follow-up episode is Adnan being released from prison.
    SJ: I cried. Did you cry?
    Host: I cried.
    SJ: You just have to think: he was 17 when this all began. I just can’t get over that. 17. And after all these years, he’s finally released because whoops, it turns out the prosecution cheated! It turns out they didn’t disclose everything, and now there are actual suspects who may have gotten away with murder? Oof.
    Host: Oof is exactly right. It’s a gut-punch. But then you’re also so relieved that he’s out, too. But all the hope from the last episode is kind of… washed away.
    SJ: It’s a really sad ending, even though it should be happy. I mean, parts of it are definitely happy. Hearing the crowd cheering outside— that was HAPPY. But the closure of it makes the wrong sink in a bit deeper, I think.
  • Conclusion:
    Host: Should we leave off in a depressing place, too?
    SJ: You know, I really think we should. The justice system is broken, people.
    Host: SJ, I appreciate you being here so much.
    SJ: This was so, so fun. Thank you for having me!
    Host: Join us next week for a review of Serial Season Two!