Contemplations on the Nature of Truth: True Crime, ‘True Detective’, and ‘Serial’ Obsessions

True Detective and Serial mark our society’s preoccupation with all things illegal, especially when they end in murder.

It begins with a body — the victim, most likely, a young woman — often in a shallow grave. Three miles in the woods, six inches in the ground, off a secluded road.

A tragic end.

To a life of secrets.

A cast of eccentric characters, often with secrets of their own. Thus, the typical elements for the most popular of genres: mystery. Across the entire spectrum of its expression from the modern incarnation of dime store pulp true crime to its sometimes more real fictional counterpart.

As a former writing instructor once put it, a murder mystery is the only story that has a built in hook — a humanizing, universal reason — that compels the audience forward in the narrative. We instantly find ourselves in the victim, be it Laura Palmer, Dora Lange, or Hae Min Lee, and seek to undo the anxiety of that identification by finding resolution. Bestselling crime novelist Walter Mosley argues the obsessive popularity of his vocation is at least partially due to this identification, a need to address our vulnerabilities.

Mosely contends that our American fascination with true crime and fiction stems from a need to “cleanse the modern world from our souls.” In an interview with NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”, he observed that “we know what America’s based on” a history of slavery, genocide, and imperialism. “We have lots of suspicions in our hearts why things go wrong, because partially, we’re involved in what’s wrong in the world. And we know that.”

There’s not a full accounting of these crimes, an acknowledgement of this brutal truth, so we live in guilt as the culpable, in the the hunger of the intrepid gumshoe searching for truth, and also, objectively as the reader, or at least consumer of this literature, cathartically cleansing ourselves through the drama that plays out.

That cultural obsession — what Mosley turned his attention away from producing to analyze — has been on full display with two of the most recent pop-cult crazes: the television shows True Detective and Serial. Together, they mark bookends on that genre spectrum from real to imagined. A cultural obsession microcosm in the broader Cultural Obsession (capital C, capital O) that encompasses all products — television, books, plays, movies, murdertainment — that marks our society’s preoccupation with all things illegal, especially when they end in murder.

Connected in the early promotion of Serial, similarities between the true crime investigative radio drama and the literary-influenced, narrative-driven, television series went beyond the genre connections.

By the metrics of cultural obsession (lower case c, lower case o), each received the full package: parodies and reddit pages, deep cultural analysis and devoted recaps. True Detective garnered critical acclaim, nominations in 12 Emmy categories, and completed its eight-week stint as HBO’s second most popular show with more than 10.9 million viewers each week (Game of Thrones claims the first). This at a time when streaming is steadily eroding the premium cable audience and AMC seems to have dominated in original content for the last several years.

That said, Serial is an actual underdog champion, of a sort. Another old-new cultural product innovation, a neo-repackaging of an old timey radio docudrama, the This American Life spin-off, launched into iTunes history surpassing the five million listeners mark with only modest production support from its parent show. Simultaneously, over the course of its 12-week run, it also elevated the decade old medium of podcasts from a seemingly cult-level obscurity to mainstream appreciation.

Both products parallel in other ways beyond the measures of fad fandom. Each warps time in a narrative that unfolds concurrently in a present-day and an early period when the crime it focuses on initially occurred. In Serial, a nearly real time present-day (as shows were produced often immediately before broadcast) while simultaneously focusing on the 1999 murder of high school student, Hae Min Lee, and her accused ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, currently serving a life sentence. For True Detective (which aired in January 2014), a not-too-distant, fictionalized 2012 serves as present-day, while the highly-ritualized crimes being investigated occurred in 1995.

Further, as a result of this experimentation, each considers human experience as it unfolds over a lifetime, the role of memory in shaping that experience, and (much to the chagrin of Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s podcast The Gist) a contemplation on the nature of truth (though only the fictional True Detective set out explicitly to accomplish this aim). Pesca pleaded with Serial producer, Sarah Koenig, in an interview, “Please don’t let this investigative series turn out to be contemplation about the nature of truth,” but at episode five, even before it crossed its halfway mark, the experiment suddenly seemed like it could become nothing other.

And, unfortunately Serial wound up being a rather incomplete contemplation on the nature of truth, at that — trapped between the story it was telling, the story it desperately wanted to tell, and the as yet unpacked meaning of it all. In fact, what made Serial so incredibly charming and addictive in the first place, would also prove to be its inherent weakness and ultimate failing in the end. It was overtly flawed and vulnerable, not in production quality, but in its insistence in showing all its blemishes. It showed all the challenges, blind alleys, and red herrings of investigative journalism. It indulged in digressions, playful tangents, and storytelling experiments that have given This American Life, its parent show, such an enduring appeal. In the end, this commitment to the true story, exposing all its inherent inconsistencies, created a cultural product incapable of actually delivering truth or any type of contemplation of it.

I did not listen to Serial as intended. At least, not in the way Ira Glass, This American Life host, suggested, as a binge experience, a House of Cards for the ears. Episodes were launched on Thursdays; each Saturday morning, in a ritual usually reserved for This American Life, my partner and I listened to that week’s show. As with many an early adopting Serial junkie, we supplemented each week’s episode with a recap show, Slate’s Serial Spoiler.

I believe there are certain notes you pick up on in the show, listening in this way, that wouldn’t play quite the same if you heard the episodes on a podcast bender. It’s the difference between checking in with a friend every week or playing catch-up every couple months. Koenig’s tone of voice, her presentation, starts to shift around episode four.

Salon critic Anna Silman refers to it as Serial’s self-awareness, though she puts it about five episodes later than I do. Silman places the moment in “To Be Suspected” (episode nine), where the show “finally engages with its online detractors.” As Silman puts it, prior to that episode, Serial continued to air as though it were “occurring in a vacuum, removed from the fandom and hubbub surrounding it.” After mounting pressures, online criticism, and a public statement on reddit, allegedly from the victim Hae Min Lee’s brother (he uses a screenshot of an email sent by Koenig to verify) condemning the show as sensationalist and reality-checking the audience:

To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck (sic) when she got the new (sic) that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping,crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through.

This was the problem I had initially with the linking of Serial to True Detective or other crime fiction dramas early in promotion. It’s why I abandoned Onion AV Club’s Serial Serial after three episodes, when the show made embarrassingly clear that it considered Law & Order a reputable framework to understand what was unfolding.

While Koenig and the This American Life crew cannot necessarily be held responsible for how the show was promoted or for what its fans post on reddit or share in recaps, I would argue that the tone throughout the show itself granted this kind of permission. The handling of the show’s subjects seemed to disregard their humanity in favor of treating them as characters, a criticism often lobbed at the media, investigative journalists, and documentary filmmakers, but here, coupled with the real-time reporting and a broadcasting of Koenig’s every impression of the case translated into a kind of journalistic negligence.

And, it is why Koenig’s tone seems to shift around that earlier episode.

I wasn’t aware of the hype surrounding the show in those earlier episodes, when I started listening. I am not a reddit fan and hadn’t realized the commentary and criticism that was swirling around the show, yet. What I sensed was a sudden awareness on Koenig’s part that she was no longer working on the story she’d begun.

Initially, the show seemed to believe that it was, what I would call, a work of exoneration literature, the body of work that has developed around wrongful conviction cases. Koenig had been approached by a family friend of Adnan Syed asking her to look into the case. The story seemed to promise Koenig and the This American Life crew something in the tradition of the Errol Morris masterpiece, The Thin Blue Line (1988) or Joe Berlinger’s exhaustive Paradise Lost trilogy (1996, 2000, 2011), which inspired a national movement for exoneration of the West Memphis Three. Unlike those works, however, as Serial moved forward, it lost its assuredness, so even now as Syed gets an appeal after the show has concluded (something certainly a credit to its efforts) the show will not have been about wrongful conviction.

Since I began working on this essay, in the weeks following the show, I have been considering what separates the literary (think: In Cold Blood) from the sensationalist (read: Lobster Boy: The Bizarre Life and Brutal Death of Grady Stiles Jr.). I wanted to know at what point Serial shifted from being art to exploitation.

Even if the marketing seemed to link it to imagined counterparts, Koenig certainly was authentic from the start. She played down her credentials covering trials to emphasize that she was out of her comfort zone, she indulged tangents that gave the show some of its most vulnerable (and often most parodied) moments, and she exercised meticulous investigative skills that she documented for the audience.

I considered — if her confidence in Serial as exoneration literature remained steadfast then even the conflating with Law & Order or CSI that is the perceived trivializing of real events by connecting them to an imagined space — that it would not have been as damning or perhaps even damning at all. I could not, however, fully grasp why that was the case until I began to revisit my thoughts on the show. When Serial appeared to be making a case for wrongful conviction, weaving true crime with its fictional counterparts would have paralleled an undoing of the State’s narrative.

“Exoneration literature” considers that the narrative we have been given about a case is false. The criminal justice version of events is in fact a fiction. The story often begins with the police account of an incident (consider: Michael Brown and Eric Garner) and leads through the court case. (As a lawyer friend once put it, verdicts are often given based on whether prosecution or defense had the better storyteller.) So, the use of fictions to demonstrate the perceived State truth as fiction can be effective in setting the record straight.

The moment it became clear that Serial wasn’t going to be that story, it had no other option than to become, like True Detective, a contemplation on the nature of truth. One that unfortunately could not resonate with the clarity of this imagined counterpart because it became lost in its own narrative.

That is perhaps the most significant takeaway from the Serial experiment, Koenig seemed to naively believe that her audience was going to give her space and freedom to report on the story as she investigated it, but that is an outmoded kind of relationship between reporter/ producer/ artist and audience. Contemporary audiences are interested in being part of the story themselves, they are engaged, and will even take an investigation into their own hands if presented with the materials and opportunities to do so.