Back in 2005 there was a terrific series on BBC Four called Death on the Staircase (known elsewhere as The Staircase). Here’s what I wrote about it at the time, and what I wrote about the follow-up in 2013.
Essentially a French film-maker spent many months following the real-life prosecution of Michael Peterson, a crime writer, who was arrested for murdering his wife. The film-maker got wide access to talk to parties on both sides of the case, and it unfolded in a remarkable manner. Last year BBC Four aired a follow-up, because there are always appeal processes.
All in all, it was a fascinating project covering a case that wasn’t black and white, but full of shades of grey.
Now we have the new podcast Serial. If you listen to podcasts, you’ve probably already heard of it. It comes from the This American Life stable, with the difference being that over multiple weeks we follow a single story. In this instance, it’s the 1999 murder of a young girl, Hae Min Lee, who attended a Baltimore High School, and the conviction of Adnan Syed, an ex-boyfriend, of her murder.
Although the jury at the time took very little time to convict Syed, it’s again clear that not everything in the case makes sense. So slowly, over a number of weeks (How many? On the website it simply says, “We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”), we’re learning more of what happened or what might have happened.
Sarah Koenig presents the programme, and she’s spent many months working on it. As well as unravelling who the cast of characters are, we get audio recordings of interviews with the suspects and witnesses from the time, as well as interviews with many of the people now. Not least, we hear repeatedly from Syed who is currently incarcerated in a Maryland prison.
In some respects, this reminds me of some of David Simon’s work. Not so much The Wire, as the book he wrote prior to Homicide: Life on the Street being made. Obviously there’s the Baltimore setting, but there’s also the fact that not every case was solved, unlike the average detective TV show. And the system can be flawed.
On the website, it says the following:
“We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”
If that’s actually the case, then it’s an unusual format to not know where you’re ending up when you start. While that is often the case with documentary makers, they wouldn’t ordinarily start airing their programme before they’ve reached a conclusive point from which they can start structuring their production.
I would imagine that the success of This American Life must leave some radio/audio producers insanely jealous. You just have to listen to the credits at the end of an episode to hear how many staff they have on the programme. And the liberty and ability to devote many hours on a single story is also very unusual. I can’t think of a similar series in this country that works in this way.
We did have Rough Justice on TV for many years, and a lot of work would go into those. But even then, a single case usually only merited a single episode. Commissioners would be nervous of stretching a single story like that over many episodes. We also get documentaries set in single locales with “characters” we follow over multiple episodes, but they tend to have narrative strands attached to each week’s episode: the Christmas party; the new launch.
Of course This American Life has had the ability to do things like this. They embedded two reporters into a Chicago High School for five months to make a two-part episode about life there. That’s a lot of commitment and resource that few would get. They famously throw away programmes (or at least early drafts) if they’re not hanging together. Again, that’s a privilege that I suspect few really get. While a documentary maker working in, say, a hospital might have to shoot stories that won’t make it to air for lots of reasons, they’re know that their hospital series overall will air, even if all the stories within it don’t. And that’s not quite the same thing.
Anyway, back to Serial. It’s a terrific radio series, and it’s well worth spending several hours of your time listening to it. As I type, episode 6 has downloaded to my phone, so I know what I’ll be listening to later. And of course the beauty of podcasts is that you can easily catch up and listen to the whole story chronologically.