It’s impossible to write about The Case Against Adnan Syed without writing about Serial. On the most straightforward level, Amy Berg’s new HBO series wouldn’t exist without Sarah Koenig’s 2014 podcast, a work so prodigiously successful that it’s been downloaded more than 175 million times. Berg, in many ways, is picking up where Koenig left off in considering the flawed investigation of the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999, and the dubious conviction of Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. Serial’s explosive debut more than four years ago means that the podcast has come to define 21st-century true crime, for better or worse: the cliff-hanger endings, the obsessive Reddit forums, the sidelined victims. With The Case Against Adnan Syed, Berg isn’t just adding to Serial’s story. She’s challenging the playbook for how true-crime stories get told.
What this means in practice is that virtually every criticism leveled at Serial following its release gets considered and responded to in some way by Berg. Serial was accused of casting Lee as a victim, and neglecting to treat her as a person in her own right; Berg uses animation to bring Lee’s diary to life, making her “voice” (re-created by an assistant editor on the series) a key part of the narrative. Where Koenig was charged with clumsiness in her treatment of immigrant families and their particular dynamics, Berg spends time with the Syeds and with a friend of the Lees (Hae’s family declined to participate), and examines why Lee and Syed felt they had to keep their relationship a secret. Whereas Koenig was a key presence in her podcast, Berg is never on camera. And whereas Koenig concluded Serial by confessing her own uncertainty regarding Syed’s innocence, Berg seems much more confident framing Syed’s conviction as an egregious failure on the part of the American justice system.