The mystery’s in the minutiae (review: SerialThePodcast, Zodiac)

My favourite episode of Law & Order is the 2007 David Fincher film, Zodiac. Less gruesomely arresting Se7en, less bombastic than Fight Club, Zodiac is unlikely to go down as a Fincher classic, but it’s my favourite – precisely because it’s not gruesome, it’s not bombastic. It’s a true crime story, with all of the minutiae that goes along with true crime.

Zodiac, based on cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s hunt for the San Francisco serial killer of the same name, is a narrative filled with personal biases, dubious evidence and unreliable testimony, forcing the audience to follow the case’s detectives (both professional and amateur) down a series of blind alleys. It’s not the type of crime story anyone would write as fiction: it’s too messy, too fragmentary, too frustrating. But it’s exactly this messiness that makes it compelling. It’s this messiness that makes it the best episode Law & Order never made.

In some ways, Zodiac could be an episode of any TV crime procedural – albeit an exceptionally well-shot, well-acted one – but what makes it different is the amount of screentime devoted to what Serial’s Sarah Koenig would probably term stupid shit.

The mystery revolves around jurisdictional fuck-ups; the exhaustive re-analysis of what might be faulty evidence; a single-line statement buried in hundreds of pages of interview notes. This isn’t a crime story in an easy 3-act structure: the suspects are obvious and yet also elusive (maybe that one creepy guy is the murderer; maybe he’s just a creepy guy); the case-breaking clues are benign. The real mystery’s buried in the minutiae; it’s not mapped out in TV-ready bursts of excitement.

Serial, a true crime podcast focusing on the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee and her alleged killer Adnan Syed, captures this same sense of crime stories as messy/fragmentary/frustrating.

It’s hard to know why Serial, which is now listened to by some 1.2 million people per episode, has caught fire so decisively. I’ve read some adorably-naïve reviews of it by people who have clearly never listened to US radio before and therefore don’t know that lead producer Sarah Koenig, though delightful, is hardly unique in her presentation style. Personally, I’d be inclined to call it Harry Potter syndrome: no, Serial (like Harry Potter) is not the greatest thing ever; it’s just a good thing that a lot of people happen to have enjoyed and told their friends about.

So, no, there’s nothing earth-shattering about this podcast. But what Serial does tap into is a widespread (yet largely unquenched) thirst for intelligent true crime. That is, true crime that doesn’t major on gruesome details or tearful interviews with the victim’s family.

Serial is an example of true crime that isn’t afraid to wade deep into the boring details of its case and create wow moments from sequences as banal as a drive to Best Buy. This is no mean feat – after all, boring details can easily become boring in delivery – and Koenig and her team deserve all their success for the construction of a slick and compelling series. But it’s also a testament to the fact that, when we consume true crime stories, it’s really the details that consume us.

Serial is now so successful that there will surely be a TV version of it produced at some stage. I suspect that, in the process, its narrative will be tightened up, and, in losing the minutiae, it will lose its magic. So don’t wait for the TV version; listen to the podcast and revel in the minutiae.

Listen to Serial for free @ serialpodcast.org

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