After watching the first episode of HBO’s new docuseries The Case Against Adnan Syed, all I could think was: I’m exhausted by this case. And if I feel that way, then I can only imagine how Hae Min Lee’s family might feel having their daughter’s murder, that they thought was long resolved, dredged up as a means of national entertainment and speculation for the past half decade. One podcast segueing into another segueing into a multiple episode TV show on the most prestigious cable network in the country. Because when you get down to its most basic facts, it starts to feel like what could have fit inside a half hour episode of Forensic Files has become the most prolonged episode of Dateline of all time.
Serial was for me, like many others, a gateway podcast. I never could have known that it would eventually lead to hours of my life disappearing into the true crime podcast void. And I loved it at the time. It made me wonder: what had actually happened to Hae, and had Adnan been wrongfully accused? But the more I looked back at it, the more I wondered how could everything have led so succinctly to being falsely accused? I got stuck on the cell towers. You can guess what I started to think.
Still, while I was worn out by the did he or didn’t he debate, I was, at least initially, excited by the advent of HBO’s new series. I thought it would go where Serial didn’t, and examine heretofore unexplored crevices that would shed a more pronounced, critical and objective light onto the case. Perhaps there’s more to come, but with the first episode I couldn’t really see what the point was. Sure we got to actually see the players, but there’s google for that? Aside from the revelation that Woodlawn High students were forced to carry around agendas that marked down even their bathroom trips (ugh, high school, where peeing is practically a crime), there was no real new information. We got to know Adnan’s family, but that comes with its own set of issues….
Sure, if Adnan isn’t guilty then we need this show, we need Serial, we need anything and everything that will examine the holes in our society’s justice system. But if he is guilty? Well, then The Case Against Adnan Syed is a little too one sided, a portrait that extends sympathy to a potential perpetrator without in depth and thorough examination. There is a lack of critical reading into the evidence, and into the way in which Adnan portrays himself and continues to be given the platform to portray himself. The empathy for Hae Min Lee and her family falls a little too flat, almost just lip service to justify what’s ultimately a money making venture. There are thousands of cold and wrongfully accused cases out there. Without a deep and nuanced portrayal of Hae Min Lee herself, is this one really worthy of continued and renewed attention?
Hae’s tragic death is a puzzle that we want to solve entirely and irrefutably. The wanting to know what happened with absolution is something we crave in all murder cases, but so often that isn’t possible. Sometimes we’re left with damning evidence and yet no body can be found. Sometimes we’re left with a body and yet no answers can be found. Sometimes we’re left with smoke and mirrors and the inability to identify another likely suspect other than the most obvious one. Ultimately, we’re left to wrestle with what killers look like. When the mask comes down, sometimes it turns out there was no mask. After all, the killers, they were just you and me.