"Serial" finally engages with its online detractors

This week, Sarah Koenig's "Serial" gets newly self-aware

By Anna Silman

Published November 20, 2014 8:00PM (EST)


Up until now, it has seemed a little bit like "Serial" was occurring in a vacuum, removed from the fandom and hubbub surrounding it. But on this week’s episode — which came after a week of mounting backlash online and a public statement on Reddit from a man claiming to be Hae Min Lee’s brother — the show seemed to reach a brand new level of self-awareness.

A number of criticisms of the show have centered on how Hae has been elided from the narrative, as well as the fact that the victim’s family haven’t had the opportunity to weigh in. This week, Koenig addresses their absence head-on. As she says: “For many many months we tried to contact Hae's family to tell them we were doing the story and in hopes they might want to talk to us about Hae. In my twenty-plus years of reporting, I’ve never tried as hard to find anyone,” said Koenig, before describing all the ways she tried (and failed) to reach them — letters in English and Korean, phone calls, private detectives, knocking on doors, social media, and on.

While Koenig would likely have given such an explanation at some point regardless, choosing to address it now certainly feels like a direct rejoinder to her online detractors and an attempt to engage with conversation taking place between episodes. While she doesn’t explicitly address the Reddit post from the man claiming to Hae’s brother, she did include what appears to be an oblique reference to it, saying  “I learned a few days ago that [the family] know what we’re doing. My best guess is that they want know part of it, which I respect.”

Koenig also responds indirectly to online criticisms by giving us some new, if unsatisfactory details, about the woman at the heart of the crime. “About Hae I can tell you only what I’ve learned from non-family members,” and she goes on to describe her cheerful demeanor and her lack of insecurity, her love of Titanic, sprite and the Dallas Cowboys, and her habits of picking off her nail polish after applying it. Koenig also describes in devastating detail Hae’s mother’s appearances during the trial. Hae and the Lees will likely always be a blank space in the narrative, but, as Koenig appears to be saying, it’s not a willful omission or one made for lack of trying.

Yet this episode, like many others, focused not on Hae but on Adnan. And in many ways, it was the closest and most upsetting look we’ve got at his situation yet. Until now, Adnan has mostly been a cheerful voice on the other end of the phone, but this week we see the full extent to which a young man's freedom has -- perhaps unjustly -- been snatched away, as Koenig takes us step-by-step through his reaction to Hae's death, his seizing by police, initial time in jail, the torment leading up to and during trial, and now, his daily life behind bars. Yes, "Serial" seems to be getting more self-aware. It’s also getting very, very real.

Anna Silman

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