tv review

The Case Against Adnan Syed Is an Empathetic Reckoning

Hae Min Lee. Photo: HBO

Like most people in 2014, I became obsessed with Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial as it traced the murky case of Adnan Syed, a once-beloved high-school football player accused and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999. Serial wasn’t just popular; it was a cultural touchstone that spawned obsessive fans spread out on Reddit and other corners of the internet intent on solving the case, pushing the genre of true crime into the stratosphere, and showing just how powerful an artistic form podcasts can be.

I have always felt a dark pull toward true crime — gorging myself on Ann Rule paperbacks, Unsolved Mysteries, and tales of classic Hollywood gone awry, like the Black Dahlia murder — with each story, no matter how intelligent or empathetic, building toward an understanding of how deeply misogyny runs in this world and how often women’s lives are curtailed by the anger and darkness of men. It is because of this, though, that Serial infuriated me: Eighteen-year-old Hae Min Lee — whose murder is the reason the podcast even exists — remained out of focus in Koenig’s investigation, as did the cultural grist of racial politics in the Baltimore area where the crime took place. In many ways, The Case Against Adnan Syed, the four-part HBO docuseries that premiered Sunday, is an astute reckoning with the failures of Serial and the modern form of true crime itself, bringing Lee to the fore in archival footage and animated vignettes, alongside the knotty dynamics between the various cultural and racial communities in the Baltimore area that are integral to understanding not just the crime and Syed’s trial, but who these people were at the time of this tragedy. Even more potent is the emotional reality of the docuseries. As director Amy Berg weaves together diary entries, phone conversations with Syed, and recollections from their loved ones (although Lee’s family declined to comment), she builds a moving portrait of grief and the space it takes up in your life even when you refuse to call it by its name.

The emotional architecture of true crime — which has become glaring in recent years as audience appetite for the genre has grown — is far too often of little depth or little importance to the overall message of these works. Many of these true-crime documentaries, whether onscreen or in podcasts, lose track of raw, knotty, emotional dynamics as they investigate the plot of the actual case. At its best, The Case Against Adnan Syed never loses sight of the human factor. In the powerful first episode, Lee takes up the most space, as she should. Her diary provides the bedrock for its structure, brought to life in animated segments and given a voice by one of the production’s own editors. She is given a complex, humane portrait as a young, bubbly woman helping her family, laughing with friends on the lacrosse and field-hockey teams. Pictures of late-’90s teen-dom fill the screen as if we’re flipping through a personal scrapbook. But there is also a dark undertow: Lee was sexually abused in Korea, and the adult who abused her was never brought to justice. The Case proves especially adept at shifting moods, from the emotional excess of adolescence to the muted tension and fear that snakes through every appearance of courtroom footage. In doing so, director Amy Berg creates not only a portrait of Hae Min Lee but of the people, city, and cultural intersections that shaped both her life and afterlife. This docuseries has a sprawling cast of people, each providing further shading of the emotional and personal truths they carry due to the devastation of this case.

I was struck at one moment in particular in the first episode, when Lee’s former teacher starts speaking of her and then her smile catches at the edges. It was a physical tell that spoke to how much Lee’s murder still reverberates. Once you pick up on this, the grief permeating through the documentary is impossible to ignore. People’s voices catch, they close their eyes as if dredging up every bit of sense memory they can when evoking her. The series is willing to live in the gray area, reminding us that even if Syed finds freedom, the question of what happened to Lee remains unanswered. Even as the later episodes becoming increasingly interested in the minutiae of the story and how the case was bungled — specifically, with a lot of time spent on cell-tower dynamics — Berg smartly circles back to more human elements, whether that is to inject the series with a note about the fallibility of memory or the loss of a loved one. It’s in watching these people wrestle with this tragedy, both in how it shaped their lives and reconstituted their own understanding of their mortality, that The Case feels like a corrective.

After firmly establishing Lee as a focal point for the series, Berg starts to reckon with the shadow Serial casts, creating a fascinating tension between footage of Sarah Koenig winning the Peabody Award and laughing on The Colbert Report, and discussions with Syed’s family and those in Lee’s circle of how the podcast’s soaring popularity greatly reshaped people’s lives. Berg sees where Serial gave hope: Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and close family friend of the Syeds, mentions how Reddit brought clues and revelations to light she would have never known about. It gave Syed the attention necessary for him not to get lost in the morass of the prison system. But it also put undue focus on a family that refused to participate in having the greatest tragedy of their life commodified for people to listen to. As one of Lee’s friends notes in the third episode, “I feel like in all the hubbub of the story, Hae gets lost.” Split screens are smartly deployed showing people as they were then — teenagers on courtroom stands trying to make sense of a monumental loss when they’re still essentially learning who they are — and who they are now, haunted by the case to varying degrees. The sharp use of split screens, archival footage, diary entries, phone calls, and interviews gives the documentary, at times, a sharply construed sense of intimacy. The Case actually gives a much fuller picture of this story by correcting the two major issues I felt when listening to Serial: the treatment of Hae Min Lee as a side figure in her own story, and the improper (to put it kindly) unpacking of the cultural dimensions of Baltimore at that time that influenced this case.

Some of the most complex segments in The Case concern the cultural dynamics of Lee and Syed’s respective communities — in not just their relationship, but the aftermath. A sort of shared cultural grief is displayed in archival footage of crime scenes, vigils for Lee, and haunting news footage of her family interwoven with interviews of people in Baltimore’s Korean community alongside an interrogation of the Muslim bias against Syed that influenced the case. Here, the ingenuity of the docuseries’ structure takes shape — traveling from the personal to the political and back again — to create an empathetic, curious understanding of how Lee’s murder rippled through her community and brought up incidents of violence Koreans had experienced in the city at the time.

In the years since Serial’s success catapulted true crime into the stratosphere, I have wondered: What is it about Lee’s death and Syed’s incarceration that has captured us — as viewers, critics, true-crime obsessives and novices — so deeply? Perhaps it is the one thing this documentary or any other can’t give us: clarity. This homespun tragedy is extremely tangled. Each time Berg doles out more information, the more opaque the truth of what happened to Lee becomes. That is the siren call of this story: its inscrutability and the humanity of all involved. Even with the startling empathy and even-handedness of the series, I couldn’t help but remember that none of Lee’s immediate family spoke with Berg for the documentary, only a family friend. As her brother posted on Reddit during the firestorm immediate popularity of Serial: “To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. … You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup … you guys are disgusting. Shame on you. I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5 [million] listeners.”

What is the value of this documentary when putting it up against the immense, tangible, inescapable loss Lee’s family experiences? Berg played coy when asked by Vulture if the documentary reveals any new information about the case. Only the first three episodes were made available to critics in advance, so the fourth and final entry may indeed shed new light. But what clarity do we yearn for when it comes to Lee’s tragic murder? To get at the objective truth of what happened to her? To exonerate Syed and take to task the callous system that put him in prison in the first place? I don’t know if any documentary could provide such swift and succinct truth — this case is, after all, mired in the failures of individual and collective memories. At the very least, The Case Against Adnan Syed makes this a story about the person who deserves justice most of all: Hae Min Lee.

The Case Against Adnan Syed Is an Empathetic Reckoning