I'm a full-time graduate student. I work part-time. I am planning my wedding. I don't have much free time. But the free time I do have is devoted to listening to "Serial," reading about "Serial," talking about "Serial" and writing about "Serial."
Why am I (and the rest of America) so addicted? I have a theory.
1.) We All Knew A Hae, A Jay and An Adnan
If I were to guess the one thing all "Serial" listeners can relate to the teenage anxiety and awkwardness associated with popularity, experimentation, relationships – all of it. There is something so familiar about hearing the petty drama in high school (petty yet deadly – according to the jury in the case).
The characters of Woodlawn High involved in this murder mystery are all people we relate to in one way or another. They are characters of our own pasts who attended our very own high schools. Everyone knows a Hae Min Lee – a popular attractive girl who dated high school boys until she met older dudes. Everyone knows a Jay – the kid who dealt pot, that seemed to have shady connections if you needed something sinister.
And, most notably, we all knew an Adnan – in fact, we all are Adnans. Adnan – like many NPR-loving "Serial" listeners – was a high-achieving high school student whose biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a typical American teenager while simultaneously not disappointing or upsetting his parents. We've all been there. My mother used to say the biggest punishment she could ever give was uttering the words "You disappoint me" – ouch! My guess is that most listeners of this podcast feel that way too and understand where Adnan's "duplicitous" behavior came from.
2.) We Get To Live Vicariously Through Sarah Koenig – Our very own, real-life Nancy Drew
I don't know about you, but there is a big part of me that feels like I'm not living my full potential because I've never solved a real mystery. I grew up reading Nancy Drew, Harriet The Spy, The Boxcar Children, and watching endless amounts of "Scooby Doo," "Columbo" and "Murder She Wrote." What's the good in all those years of crime-solving training if I never get a shot at solving an actual murder?
Sarah Koenig, she's out there doing it! She's living all of our dreams and showing us it's not as simple as the hour-long dramas make it seem. She shares our frustrations with Cristina Gutierrez; she knows there is something fishy with Jay. Sarah is on the frontlines helping us be the detectives we never got to be.
3.) We're Surprised That Baltimore Crime Isn't All Like "The Wire"
I don't know about you guys, but I have spent 180s hours of my life watching all seven season of "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and all five seasons of "The Wire" (thank you David Simon).
Up until "Serial" I thought I knew everything there was to know about murder in Baltimore (I even knew to dump a body in Leakin Park). But what those shows taught me – a suburban Jewish white girl from Los Angeles – was that murder in Baltimore was usually related to drugs, corporation and gang warfare. Baltimore has teenage drama too? Baltimore has homecoming dances and magnet programs? What?! Suddenly I realized this wasn't a murder in David Simon's Baltimore; this was a murder in Barry Levinson's Baltimore – a Baltimore of suburbs and public libraries – where kids have their own cars, hang out at the mall and get scholarships to college. I keep waiting for the other Baltimore – the one I watched for years on HBO and NBC – to show up.
4.) We're Learning Real Life Murders Aren't Wrapped Up Nicely In A Bow
Chances are if you've watched television in the last 40 years, you've watched dozens of murders being solved, and by the time an episode is over, you're certain they've got the right person. Our addiction to crime dramas has desensitized most of us to murder and yet here we are captivated by a 15-year-old case. Why? Because we are not certain that they've gotten the right man. This is real drama. We're addicted to "Serial" because there is no bow tying it all together. Maybe another generation – a generation that doesn't see three murders a night on basic cable – would find our girl Sarah's detailed reporting tedious. We, on the other hand, find it refreshing! And to top it off, this is actually real. The stakes are high. There is a real man, a man we now know, serving a life sentence in a Maryland correctional facility, which gets me to my final point.
5.) We're Confronted With Flaws In A Legal System We Thought We Could Trust
Most Americans believe the criminal justice system in the U.S. usually does a good job of catching the bad guys - that in general people do not get put away for life unless there is an iron-clad case against them. The majority of the "Serial" audience would agree that there is no iron-clad case against Adnan Syed for the killing of Hae Min Lee. Maybe he is guilty (like I said, I'm only mostly convinced) but what is clear from what has so far been presented is that there is reasonable doubt. Therefore, I think the final reason we're addicted to "Serial" is because it scares us. It seems like the criminal justice system didn't work and therefore an innocent high school student – who is just like us – is in jail. If your ex-high school girlfriend or boyfriend was found dead, that could be you. Unlike our hour-long crime dramas, it isn't always clear at the end who did it and sometimes the wrong person does get sentenced to life.
That's scary and that's why we listen.