Lots of sad, dark thoughts on Serial (definitely spoilers)

Mike Rugnetta did not address the aspects of Serial that I had guessed he was going to. Instead, he talked about the nature of subjectivity and objectivity and the law, and saved a discussion of the same re: journalism for next week.

So, unfortunately, I don't have the jumping-off point I was hoping for -- it would have really helped to have someone smarter than me get the ball rolling on this one.

Serial doesn't resolve. That's a really stressful quality it has. It's a story about a person possibly-wrongfully in prison, it's an exploration of the circumstances surrounding his case. It started airing while the investigation was ongoing. Resource-laden people who believe he's innocent became involved in the case during the series. Sarah Koenig can't possibly have known that it wouldn't have resolved. She says so a number of times: she expected to catch a break. She expected the case to be solvable.

Mike takes the time to remind the audience that Serial is real, but in case you didn't watch the video: Serial is real. It's actually a story about a real person who is currently in prison, about a real teenage girl who was actually murdered in 1999. The ambiguities and conflicts were not artfully constructed and balanced to be just-barely-uncrackable. It's real. Adnan Syed is really in prison. Hae Min Lee is actually dead.

I'm going to keep trying, but I can't think of a better way to say what I'm trying to say. It's real. It really happened in 1999. For Adnan and his family, it really is still happening now. It's real. It's real.

In the closest he comes to talking about what I thought he was going to talk about, Mike calls the end of Serial Kafkaesque. It reminded me of something I once saw Christopher Hitchens say in an interview, about a story he was writing about Soviet Russia.

He had been smuggled into the country and was in the basement with his hosts, and he was going to be the first person to write a news story there without calling it Kafkaesque. But on his first night there, the secret police burst in and arrested everybody. He said, "They make you do it."

The idea stuck with me. That that's what a Kafkaesque real world would have to be like: if it were anything short of cartoonishly, surreally, randomly, capriciously oppressive, it wouldn't really be the kind of world Kafka described. And that's what still makes me sick to think about: that Kafka's world was the real world. That he wasn't exaggerating or making it up. It was real. It was real.

Would it be unfair or over-dramatic to say that Adnan Syed woke up one day in 1999 to discover that he'd turned into an insect? If he's innocent. Or that he's performing an extraordinary feat of starvation? If he's guilty.

The United States is second on Wikipedia's list of countries by incarceration rate. And next to our number, 707 per 100,000, is a note that leads to a section explaining all the different kinds of prisoners the United States leaves out of that count. Those are real numbers.

In a 2012 study people who watched certain major TV news sources performed worse on questions about international affairs than people who watched no news at all. After NPR (the people who make Serial) the next best performance came from people who get all their news from a parody news show on a comedy channel. That was a real study.

As jobs that require only a high school education become harder to find, and the minimum wage lags behind inflation by about a third and behind the cost of living by about half, the cost of attending college has increased at a rate that exceeds inflation for at least three decades. Those are real statistics.

My first thought about Serial was "Oh, isn't it cool that we're getting culturally used to hearing stories with a lot of ambiguity?" But that line of thinking ignores one huge, important detail: It's real. It's real. It's real.