Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Politics Of: Hating Serial

From The Bold Italic
Serial, the world's most popular pod-cast, concluded its last episode of the first season. It was, by any objective measure, a tour de force of oral storytelling. Serial, produced by This American Life's Sarah Koenig, narrates her year-long investigation into the death of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. The man convicted, Adnan Syed, has been serving 15 years in jail and Sarah was asked to investigate.

In each episode, Sarah discusses some aspect of the case, the murder, one of the individuals involved, and so on. At each step she's looking for a 'smoking gun' which would either exonerate Sayed or conclusively convict him. She examines cell phone evidence, witness testimony, and the blueprints of a Best Buy where some of the action (allegedly) went down.

In the end, it wraps without that smoking gun (what did you expect, guys??)--but we come away with (a) a good feeling for Sayed (whether he did it or not, he's a humble, likable guy) and a sense that the Baltimore PD was more interested in closing out the case than the deep-dive into the evidence we got.

Here is a more substantial list of winners and losers from Serial Season One.

Of course along with the millions of people who loved it, there has been no dearth of people who hate it. Hating something "because it is boring" is a cop out: Tons of things are boring--including (to some) you. That's insufficient reason to hate something (unless you are just being self indulgent). Hating something because you don't dig it and "can't get away from it" is whining: there are all kinds of things out there that take up popular culture space that we aren't all going to be inclined to like. If you don't like listening to Serial talk around the water cooler at work, wait until April and everyone will be talking about Game of Thrones again.

No--hating something because it's dull is a self-important cop out. So what are the other reasons to hate Serial ... and how good are they?

It Has A Sub-Reddit--And We Are Called Upon To Hate Sub-Reddits, Are We Not?
Reddit is, as we all know, a hive of scum and villainy. Sub-Reddits are sections of Reddit devoted to specific topics people want to discuss. From a horrible user interface to inconsistent moderation to a trolls-are-people-too attitude towards what sub-Reddits are allowed, there are plenty of reasons to be down on the Reddit subculture.

For the specific SerialPodCast Sub-Reddit, what we've got is (a) a bunch avid listeners trying to make sense of the podcast and then (b) amateur sleuths trying to find their own evidence to break the case where Sarah failed. Anyone who remembers the immediate (and wrong) fingering of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing might well take a dim view of this.

Of course, if we're going to hate things that have active sub-reddits, we're probably going to have to hate puppy dogs, rainbows, and flowers too.

Analysis: Poor reason to hate. The Internet sleuthing isn't great but the subreddit seems reasonably well behaved and has put a 25k+ charity fund in Mae's name. Works of charity don't excuse everything (see #GamerGate trying ot do that too) but there's no clear bad behavior on serialpodcast's part The Omnivore has heard about.

Not To Be All Judgey Here--But What Is A Privileged Jewish White Girl Doing All Up In The Black / Muslim Baltimore Crime Scene??
A not insignificant number of people found Sarah's plunge into person-of-color immigrant communities to be both condescending and problematic:
It gets worse. Also in the second episode of Serial, Koenig reads passages from Hae’s diary. Koenig notes, “Her diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girls diary.” (My emphasis added.) This statement seems to suggest a colorblind ideal: In Koenig’s Baltimore, kids will be kids, regardless of race or background. But I imagine there are many listeners—especially amongst people of color—who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, “relatable” narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.
This becomes worse (or 'worse') when Koenig gets to Episode 8 "What's the Deal With Jay." Jay is the guy who fingered Adnan to the cops, allegedly helped bury Mae's body with Adnan, and walked free because he talked. Jay is also black. Where Adnan gets a great deal of sympathy from Koenig, Jay, some felt, was subtly contrasted to be less ... admirable. Adnan is the "Model Minority." Jay is a guy in the school who isn't in the special gifted magnet program but rather, "gen-pop" (the high school kid's term, Sarah enthusiastically points out--not her's). See here:
The problem with the model minority myth — besides the fact that it stereotypes and dehumanizes millions of people — is that by its very nature it requires a “bad” minority to balance the scales. Asians in the U.S. didn’t go from being “The Heathen Chinee” to “The Asian-American Whiz Kids” because white Americans suddenly realized we were good at math. Instead, championing Asian-Americans (including South Asians like Adnan) has been a useful way to denigrate black Americans and deny the continuing existence and impact of racism. If Asians can succeed, the myth’s champions insist, that proves racism is over and black people are responsible for their own failure to thrive. It’s an insidious and dismayingly persistent narrative, one that remains a linchpin of ongoing anti-black racism among whites and non-black people of color.
To be sure, Sarah does hail from a different cultural and class base than most of the people in the story. At one point she interviews a juror on the issue of Jay and the (black) juror explains to her that Jay is the kind of guy everyone knows--kind of. He's that cousin you'd go to if you needed to, like, hide a body (indeed, that is what Adnan allegedly went to him for--also to buy pot). Sarah tells us that she's racked her brains and--hey--she doesn't know anybody in her circles who'd know where to hide a body.

Shocking, right?

Analysis: A poor reason to hate. Even most of the commentators don't actually hate Serial for its sins of Privilege and The Omnivore doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the Social Justice context these articles take. Part of the reason Sayed is the "model minority" is that, well, he's a freakin' model minority. Even in prison, he's seen universally (by inmates, wardens, and guards) as a stand-up guy. The other-boyfriend who took the stand against him was yelled at by the district attorney (twice) for not making their target (Adnan) sound sufficiently creepy (the new Mae-Boyfriend, Don, met Adnan once and found him to be a cool guy). Jay, on the other hand, doesn't go on tape and is much sketchier (except for, you know, the whole being convicted of murder thing).

In terms of various compounded "micro-aggressions" Sarah commits in her analysis: maybe. The Omnivore finds it hard--almost impossible--to get the preferred cadences of language and social justice right even when one is trying. Attempting to do a study of cultures that are complex, nuanced, and, at times, at odds (black vs. Muslim in Baltimore is, apparently, not without its friction points) borders on impossibility if you were going to try to satisfy everyone.

But then again, if you don't want to get into each side's alleged issues with the other and just report on what you saw? It'd look a lot like Serial. Let's also note that Sarah does address racism and anti-Islamic currents (in the prosecutor's statements, for example)--but her assessment was never going to cover the hugely complex and, probably mostly unspoken, intersection of the cultural pain-points.

She probably did us a favor by avoiding that part of the story.

It's True-Crime For Liberals (By National Pravda Radio)
Someday a learned left-leaning professor will get behind the wheel of an armed, armored vehicle and take Social Justice to the road-ways in Mad Max style warfare. Observers will call the event, owing to its massive, rapt attention by academia, "NASCAR For Liberals." Until that day, though, NASCAR will be see by liberals as "for Hillbillies" and "Friends of Mitt Romney who own NASCAR teams."

If you don't think much of NPR to begin with or find newcomers to True-Crime (which is what Serial is, by genre, of course) to be kind of annoying then this is all you need. Glossily packaged with a coat of liberal activism and told to us in the soothing tones Sarah Koenig's self-depreciating enthusiastic voice, Serial is a True-Crime story that sells itself as not being a lurid, voyeuristic exercise in misery tourism. That's still more or less what it is though. It wouldn't be nearly as interesting if it were fake.

While we're on the topic, let's talk about Koenig's voice. While some people do hate it, she is certainly no Nancy Grace: A bizarro-world Slate article finds that Sarah Koenig is too likable--and that's the problem with Serial. Perhaps if she was Hillary-like "likable enough" the series would be much improved? Doubtful.

Analysis: A moderate reason to hate. Serial, a product of This American Life, cannot help but be somewhat hypocritical. There's still a dead girl at the center of all this. We're still looking into the lives of ethnic Baltimore neighborhoods like we did in The Wire--except these people are all real. NPR, for all their dedication to good reporting, is unquestionably staffed by liberals (Does anyone question how Ira Glass votes?). Where The Omnivore is a bit ambivalent about Sarah not being an insider on the cultures she's reporting on (which seems a high-bar to clear as a general statement) if your problem with NPR is that it's calibrated for liberals you've got The Omnivore there.

Also, if you just hate True-Crime--if you find it voyeuristic and tawdry--even putting lipstick on that pig won't change it. If you don't like a young girl's real death being used for entertainment (which Serial is, even as it's also education and may help a potentially innocent guy get his parole), you're entitled to.

Millions of People Hate Serial And Use That Hate To Send High-Fives
In The Interview (the movie killed by Kim Jong Un's cyber-soldiers ... further proof we live in the future), one of the main characters tells the other than the haters "Hate us 'cause they 'anus.'" (Ain't Us). While the saying is not (yet) 'a thing'--the concept sure is.

Being the most popular podcast of all time may not be the biggest media coup imaginable but it isn't nothing either. There's going to be a backlash just based on the fact that any time you encounter something that is hugely loved and you don't intrinsically love it, you have three reactions:
  1. Eh--alright. This is the most mature reaction. How many people do you know who are really mature?
  2. Ohh--I LOVE IT!! Some people will fake loving it to fit in. This why more people claim to have voted for the winning candidate in an election than actually voted for him/her.
  3. THOSE BASTARDS!! The third reaction is to take it personally when something popular isn't your cup of tea. This can take the form of superiority ('THOSE kinds of people who eat at The Olive Garden ...') or it can take the form of calculated backlash ('Guardians of the Galaxy was corporate trash! I don't know why people thought it was innovative movie making ... it's Disney, for Pete's sake!').
Analysis: Stupid. Hipster-hating is dumb.

It's Unethical, Right?
Serial isn't just new because it's a liberal-NPR-True-Crime-Podcast. It's also fairly unique in that it's playing out in real-time and semi-uniquely merging story-telling techniques (cliffhangers, reversals, sudden reveals, etc.) to give us information on real people who really suffered. Worse: as the story was continuing to be investigated while the podcasts were coming out, there was potential for "reverb" where listeners who were involved could change their stories and call Koenig back with "new information." Finally, there was the possibility that, had she revealed the Real Killer(s), she would've held it back for the big finish (that didn't happen).

There's also the issue that by (pretty transparently) wanting Adnan to be innocent, isn't she kinda smearing Jay? And while we're at it, isn't she kinda the main character--the protagonist--in the story?

And ... Jay gets smeared-by-proximity, what about Hae Min Lee? This is a Dead Girl drama with an actual for-real dead girl at the center of it. Her family does not appear in the podcast (either because they can't be found or don't want to be) but her diary (submitted as evidence) gets read on the air. Koenig is pretty nice to her--but she's still a 2-dimensional character in the production. She's a motive force--a McGuffin. Koenig is creating something with the architecture of fiction on a foundation of fact. Is that okay? Hard to know.

Analysis: A good reason to hate Serial if this bothers you. While The Omnivore is pretty sure that Koenig didn't plan to have the most successful podcast of all time, This American Life isn't an unknown small-market radio show either. She knew this was going to have some dimension of scale and she also knew what she was doing.

Everyone is going to have a different ethical line in the sand: In the Internet age, lots and lots of people get an unwelcome spot-light on them for reasons ranging from an instant of bad judgment to becoming a viral hero. In this case, the cast of Serial owe their 15-minutes of fame not intrinsically to the Internet, but to being embroiled in a murder case. Serial does sort of flatten their real experiences into a story-book in a way that, for example, a castigating Nancy Grace doesn't quite manage (at least with a hectoring Nancy Grace, there is never a moment where you can forget the incident is real)--and if they're not happy about being character-ized that's probably a reasonable complaint.

On the other hand, while you can argue that something like Serial should never exist--and that's fine as far as it goes--it doesn't seem likely that anyone can make a good case that Sarah has been callous or brutal in her portrayals of people. She has a soft touch and, while some people found her disclaimers to be overwrought, what would she sound like if she really wasn't totally sure what had happened? About the same, thinks The Omnivore.

Serial is done by professionals and, it appears, professionals who care to be fair-minded and gentle. If you're going to hate it for that, go ahead--but be aware that your bar is really, really high.

Serial isn't going to be to everyone's taste--but it was a phenomena of taking a small-story, cold case and using a fairly new medium to deeply reach millions of people. Whatever the problems with it--whatever its shortfalls, it was fascinating. The Omnivore questions whether or not they can even make a Season 2 that could compete with Season 1.

We'll all find out though, won't we?

1 comment:

  1. [veronica here]

    On the whole privilege thing, yeah, that’s a bad reason to hate the show or the host — but it is a good reason to be *upset*. Which is to say, the chances that a person from that culture could produce such a thing and *have it taken seriously* is small. This is infuriating. And it goes on and on and on and on and on and on. Like until you wanna smash shit.

    So the “oh look another smug, privileged white girl” response is — well, *why* is it always another smug, privileged white person?

    And I get it’s not literally always. Ta-Nehisi Coates exists. As does Spike Lee. But even cursory examination of the media landscape shows an enormous imbalance.

    There were no doubt black-and-or-muslim people from that community who could have done this, who have the talent. Finding them would take a bit of effort. But why not make the effort? Why shouldn’t they get the break? Why shouldn’t they get the attention?

    Do you actually want real insight? Hey white people, step up your game.