The Case Against Adnan Syed review: an engrossing doc that brings the podcast to life

HBO's four part documentary revisits the murder of Hae Min Lee, explored in podcast Serial.

True crime documentaries, particularly those about cold cases and miscarriages of justice are coming at us thick and fast. Few are as anticipated, though, as HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, a four part doc recapping and expanding on the story told by Sarah Koenig in 2014 podcast Serial. While podcasting itself wasn’t exactly new at the time, Serial became a phenomenon and was for many something of a ‘gateway podcast’ converting the uninitiated to the medium as the story unfolded week by week. Did Adnan do it? Was Don’s alibi legit? What’s up with Jay? And what the hell was going on with The Nisha Call?

If you have no idea what any of those questions mean, don’t worry – The Case Against Adnan Syed works just as well for the uninitated as die hard Serial fans.

Serial explored the case of the murder of 18-year-old school girl Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend 17-year-old Adnan Syed for the killing. At the time Serial was first broadcast Syed was serving a life sentence for the crime though there was a lot to suggest he wasn’t guilty – or at least that the evidence presented at trial was sketchy and incomplete.

It’s lawyer and family friend of the Syeds Rabia Chaudry who first brought Koenig’s attention to the case and it’s Chaudry who’s front and centre in this series which works as a companion piece and a continuation focusing on progress in the case and attempts to get Adnan a re-trial. While we glimpse Koenig in ep one and hear audio extracts from Serial, The Case Against Adnan Syed uses its own range of voices to build the story.

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New interviews with Hae’s best mates, Adnan’s family and friends as well as witnesses for the prosecution Jenn Pusateri and Krista Myers are fascinating and add extra depth to the story. And while Jay – the State’s key witness – isn’t a featured talking head, extra info from an ex-girlfriend of Jay’s is one of the most scintillating moments. 

While some of the intimacy of Koenig purring ‘noted, right?’ in your ear is lost, instead we get a wider contextual picture of the Maryland town where the murder occured, the school that Hae and Adnan attended and more crucially, a sense of who Hae actually was as a person. Extracts from a journal of hers, love letters between her and Adnan, photos and even animated segments attempt to bring her to life as a smart, attractive, creative overachiever and explore how the pressures from the Korean community Hae lived in and the Muslim community of Adnan’s affected their relationship.

Expertly digesting and condensing the key facts of what happened and the people involved, the doc is clearer and easier to follow than Serial. Distance from the podcast, and of course revelations that have surfaced since, mean for for example, there’s no air time given to ‘butt dials’ – at least by the end of episode three, which is as much of the series as was available to us for review.

You absolutely don’t have to have listened to Serial to enjoy the doc but there’s lots here for fans of the show too including post-podcast developments, input from new players and most of all the chance to hear from – and actually see – most of the people whose voices and testimony featured in Serial, really bringing the story to life.

We say story, but of course, it’s important to remember this isn’t fiction. Director Amy Berg, who also made West Memphis three doc West Of Memphis, with Peter Jackson on board as producer, tries to keep the series grounded in the fact that these are actual people’s lives. The post-Serial fan theories and negative online treatment of Chaudry and Asia McClane, a possible new witness for the defence, is a valuable strand, while archive clips of Hae Min Lee’s mother are just heartbreaking.

Post Making A Murderer and The Staircase many true crime fans have grown somewhat cynical about heavy bias in documentary portrayals of ongoing cases. Facts are sometimes omitted, theories skirted over and the opinion of armchair detectives given too much credence. From the off, TCAAS doesn’t hide its allegiances to Adnan and most of the voices we hear believe Adnan is innocent or are at least unsure whether he did it or not. But that doesn’t mean there’s no scope for doubt. Because the fact is, we don’t know whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee or not and the question here, for now at least, seems to be less whether he did it, and more whether he got a fair trial.

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With the case still ongoing there’s plenty of scope for a second season. Though not perhaps as sensational, strange and packed with larger than life figures as MAM nor as shocking and final as The Jinx, The Case Against Adnan Syed perhaps has the best chance for a positive outcome in the future (if you think Adnan is innocent at least). At the very least it’s an engrossing look into a tragic death and a legal system badly in need of reform.

The Case Against Adnan Syed debuts on HBO on 10 March at 9pm. The documentary will debut in the U.K. via Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW TV on 1 April.