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'Serial' Discussion: Why Are We So Quick to Believe Adnan Syed Is Innocent?

By Vivian Kane | TV | November 10, 2014 | Comments ()

By Vivian Kane | TV | November 10, 2014 |


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After the fourth episode of Serial, Dustin posted a poll on this site to see which direction we were all leaning in our feelings toward Adnan Syed. Those who thought he was innocent were in the majority, at 41%. The No Idea-ers were close behind at 40%. And only 17% of you thought he was guilty. (Room for error there, I suppose.) Now, Adnan has a lot to see in his favor, but there is evidence working against him at the same time. Koenig herself goes back and forth on believing Adnan’s innocence multiple times within each episode. But right from the beginning, despite the holes in his story and Jay’s testimony (not that many of us put much stock in anything Jay has to say), we were on Adnan’s side. Why is that?

I think we are quick to believe Adnan simply because the question of his guilt was put forth. Just by the mere existence of a podcast about this case, we assume it will end with Koenig proving he was wronged. We are used to this kind of story, the slowly unfolding murder mystery with a surprise ending, in the form of movies (and books and TV). So it’s tempting to listen to Serial in the same way we watch a good movie- we’re looking for clues, predicting twists, suspicious of red herrings. This works against Adnan as much as it works for him. Our image of how a wrongly convicted man should behave comes from carefully crafted characters, so when Adnan doesn’t follow the script we’re used to, it’s suspicious. Why did he never call Hae after she disappeared? Why isn’t trying more actively to prove his innocence to Koenig? Why can’t he explain the Nisha call? We, as viewers (or listeners) are used to having these questions put forth and then answered cleverly by our designated narrator. Whether that narrator is an omniscient being, a desperate defendant, the plucky detective— whoever it is, it’s usually someone with more insight or more experience than we have. But Sarah Koenig is admittedly out of her element with this story. And that’s what makes Serial so different and so exciting, but it can also be really hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we may not get our answers, that Adnan’s behavior might not be full of clues and red herrings. Maybe he was just high school kid who smoked a lot of pot and had other girls he was interested in and didn’t have the benefit of iCal to remember what he’d done on a random day six weeks earlier. That’s much less satisfying than an evil teenage genius.

This week’s episode was a burst of fresh perspective that, for the first time, allowed me to feel justified in my belief of Adnan’s innocence. Suddenly, it wasn’t just our SVU-ified brains that made us feel we know where this story would lead; now there are actual professionals agreeing as a unified force that maybe they can’t say for sure that he’s innocent, but there’s definitely not enough evidence to find him guilty. The Innocence Project’s Deirdre Enright (who in the movie version is played by Cherry Jones or I am BOYCOTTING) is the anchor of pragmatism that, for many of us, endorses what we’ve been thinking all along, but is simultaneously able to bring us down out of the Shayamalan twist-obsessed clouds. One of the most satisfying moments from this week’s episode was when Koenig was once again vacillating on her opinion of Adnan, musing that he may very well be a sociopath, playing her perfectly to win her support. Enright immediately brings us back to reality, reminding us that in real life, a sociopath would be a dream case. But more likely, he’s just a normal guy. We want Adnan to be an innocent angel or an evil mastermind— he’s Richard Kimble or Keyser Sose, and our movie-loving brains don’t know how to recognize anything in between. The addition of Dierdre Enright, Super Badass helps keep us grounded.

What do you all think? Do you think he’s innocent just because that’s the path we’re used to seeing in movies? Did you think he was guilty before, but the Innocence Project turned you around? Does anyone actually still think he is guilty?



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