In 2014, the premiere season of the podcast Serial became a massive hit as host Sarah Koenig investigated the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and the ensuing trial, which resulted in Hae's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Koenig's podcast prompted a reignited interest in the case by bringing it to international attention; in 2016, Adnan was granted an appeal.
The success of Serial resulted in a number of related podcasts, a 2014 "Investigation Discovery" special, a couple of books, and, of course, countless internet detectives who are still obsessing over trying to solve the case themselves. The latest to tackle the case is HBO's four-part docuseries, The Case Against Adnan Syed, from director Amy Berg. The series isn't as interesting or addictive as the original podcast, nor does it function as a program full of "bombshell" revelations, but it does provide a good-enough chaser to Serial.
The Case Against Adnan Syed fits neatly into the true crime pantheon, a genre that has been increasingly scrutinized for its sensational and uncomfortable nature. It reintroduces viewers to the case, largely by rehashing the biggest points from the Serial podcast: how Hae's body was found in Leakin Park, the inconsistencies in peer Jay Wilds' statements to the police, the still pretty confusing details of cell-phone tower records, the strange specifics of the trial, the appeals process, and so on. It's all pretty repetitive for those familiar with the case and it doesn't add much to the story — and sometimes, unfortunately, the jumpy nature of the episodes makes it even harder to follow. It's in these moments that The Case Against Adnan Syed skews more boring than eye-opening.
But the inherent visual nature of the docuseries does make most of this more interesting, particularly when it comes to watching old footage of the trial or putting faces to the voices in Serial. (The less said about the bizarre, unnecessary reenactments, the better.) It's especially stirring to fully view the scope of frustration from those who futilely have told their side over and over. And early in the first episode, we meet members of the Syed family: Adnan's mother Shamim Rahman, shown working in her daycare, and his younger brother Yusuf, who explains, "When Adnan went to prison, it was like a big piece of all of us had died. We thought he was gone forever." Until, that is, attorney and family friend Rabia Chaudry began fighting to prove his innocence.
Rabia is ever-present throughout the docuseries; she's also the person who originally brought the case to Koenig's attention, and has since produced her own podcast, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, and written a book, Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. Her steadfastness is admirable; she remains determined even as she's not allowed to remain in the court during the appeal. But it also makes it clear that The Case Against Adnan Syed isn't impartial; the docuseries reads as pro-Adnan's innocence, even if it doesn't explicitly say so (it's also hard to get a grasp on what exactly Berg and co. are shooting for) but it doesn't seem to have any strong ideas on who is guilty.
It's a curious approach, mostly because the first three episodes sent to critics don't really provide any new or damning information to help make that case. In fact, unless there's some The Jinx-esque reveal in the last hour, much of the series doesn't often make a case for its own existence. While watching, I found myself less actively invested in the case (despite being a big Serial fan who read Chaudry's book) and more wondering why we needed these extra four hours in the first place. It's not to say that it's a bad docuseries; some of it is quite good, particularly for those who are just now being introduced to the case. But too often it feels meandering and repetitive, lacking confidence in its own ideas which makes much of it fall flat.
Still, Berg is a skilled interviewer and director — if you can get past the sprawling overhead drone shots that jar viewers out of the narrative — and the docuseries is technically sound, and relatively tame compared to say, Netflix's Making a Murderer or Ted Bundy Tapes. What's especially notable is that Hae plays a bigger role throughout; a frequent complaint of Serial was that Hae, like so many female murder victims, was largely missing from her own narrative. (In fact, although The Case Against Adnan Syed still, of course, skews Adnan-heavy, it does give time to not only Hae but a handful of people who felt the ripple effects of the murder, who have had this event lingering in the back of their lives for two decades. It's also notable that Berg focuses on a handful of women such as Rabia and Asia McClain.)
It's still iffy: At the Television Critics Association press tour last month, Berg revealed that she didn't get to talk to Hae's family because, understandably, they "didn't want to participate." Hae's main representative, outside of a few former classmates' memories, is a vague "family friend." So instead, Berg's most prominent way of inserting Hae into the story is through the use of her own diary. Much of the first episode is spent depicting Hae and Adnan's teenage relationship as, the episode title asserts, a "forbidden romance" (which could be either sweet or coarse, depending on your view of Adnan's innocence or lack thereof). Berg uses Hae's diary to the docuseries' advantage as Hae's words occasionally double as narration and sometimes, lead to almost-whimsical animated sequences lifted from the entries. It's a polarizing move: Some viewers will welcome the attempt to bring Hae's words to life, while others will find it uncomfortable and an example of true crime's overwhelming invasiveness.
The Case Against Adnan Syed, at least in the first three hours, isn't a groundbreaking docuseries nor will it lead to another frenzy of obsessives. It's mostly just a well-done addendum to a well-known story: a few extra notes, a new theory here or there, an interesting visit or phone call that quickly gets dropped. It's hard to fully judge the series without seeing what they have in store for the finale which, if we've learned anything from true crime series, could potentially change the narrative entirely.
The Case Against Adnan Syed premieres Sunday, March 10 at 9/8c on HBO.