In Adnan Syed’s ongoing legal struggle, our culture seems to have stumbled on a successor to the O.J. Simpson saga — a “trial of the century” for the age of micro-fame. Born and raised in Baltimore, Syed was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee; his story provided grist for Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast “Serial” and now for an HBO documentary series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed.” Contrary to what the volume of coverage might suggest, the case is most interesting as a narrative about the media. Syed’s incarceration is a Möbius strip for the attention economy: It continues to be covered because it has been covered in the past.
This leads to a broadcast that breaks no ground, that succeeds in re-airing exculpatory information about Syed but falls short as a documentary and as television. “The Case Against Adnan Syed” is a misbegotten rehash of a person whose renown belies that his story can’t sustain multiple retellings. Neither a famous figure nor a particularly potent symbol of something greater than himself, Syed is a part of a case that wouldn’t stick out had a journalist not seen in it a parable of sorts.
On “Serial” and “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” the unremarkableness is the point. The telling of Syed’s tale is, in both projects, a depiction in miniature of a world in which justice is denied and won back only incrementally; its ordinariness suggests that this happens all the time. This version, though, succeeds only if you believe Syed to have been railroaded, a question Koenig avoided by playing up her emotional connection with and sympathy for Syed while remaining coy about the question of guilt or innocence. By contrast, Amy Berg’s documentary feels like agitprop. Making a film about a subject suggested by another popular project means, necessarily, that the other work got there first. Because so much of the case has been pre-masticated, Berg’s options are either to restate those aspects or to embroider new bits of provocation.
She does both. Our guide through the case is Rabia Chaudry, the attorney who contacted Koenig in the first place out of a belief that Syed had been wrongfully imprisoned. She recounts her decision to reach out to Koenig after Syed lost an appeal, and we’re taken through the rise of “Serial” as a pop culture phenomenon. (The second season of “Making a Murderer” similarly began with this bit of ball-spiking; in both cases it’s an acknowledgment of sorts that the current project exists solely in the shadow of its forerunner.) A recapitulation of the podcast might have obviated the need to, for instance, once again discuss the ambiguity around the location where Jay Wilds, a witness who testified against Syed, placed a phone call. The placement of cell-phone towers is, and should be, of great interest to jurors who hear some future appeal of Syed’s. It is not of enough interest to sustain even a viewer who is convinced of his innocence. And we spend too little time with Syed — who appears, occasionally, as a voice pleading his own innocence — to get to know him. It’s as though Berg assumed that part of her job had been done for her by Koenig, but it means this retelling doesn’t stand on its own.
As if sensing this shortcoming, the series reaches, and strains, to be something more potent and challenging. It’s a shame there isn’t a more serious attempt at discussing anti-Muslim bias, a point at which “The Case Against Adnan Syed” diffidently gestures. Berg puts more work into recasting the Hae-Adnan relationship, inserting an actress reading excerpts from Lee’s diary in voiceover while depicting, through animation, her memories of a dreamy prom night. Elsewhere, a swoony Lana Del Rey song plays over a cartoon of Hae and Adnan walking through a forest. (The song’s title, “Tomorrow Never Came,” would be mordant if one believes Berg were enough in control of her project to have chosen it for that reason.) It’s telling that the documentary has to push this hard to engineer a reason its narrative matters, losing sight of sense, taste and respect for Lee’s survivors in the quest to justify its existence. Adnan Syed’s story remains a notorious one, but it’s become clear that, as told by its chroniclers so far, it’s a tale that generates cultural heat while illuminating nothing, not even itself.
Executive producers: Henrietta Conrad, Jemima Khan, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Andrew Stearn, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Amy F. Berg, Sara Bernstein, Rabia Chaudry.
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