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Four ways HBO's Adnan Syed series goes beyond 'Serial'

HBO has stressed that its four-part documentary series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” goes beyond the hugely successful “Serial” podcast.

And based on seeing the first three parts, which were made available for preview, I agree.

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Here are four of the ways the series does that.

The legal saga

The most obvious example is in following the ongoing legal process since “Serial” ended in 2014. In 2016, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch granted Syed’s request for a new trial. The state of Maryland appealed the ruling. In 2018, the Court of Special Appeals also ruled to grant Syed a new trial and vacate his conviction. But the state again appealed — this time to the state’s highest court. Oral arguments were heard in November, and a ruling is pending.

That’s a lot of legal territory since “Serial, and the series navigates most of it smoothly, bringing in a wide array of voices ranging from the legal community to technical experts and private investigators explaining developments in ways accessible to viewers who never heard an episode of “Serial.”

Part 4, which was not made available for preview, is said to contain more new legal information.

The power of visuals
Shamim Rahman, the mother of Adnan Syed, wipes away a tear outside the Maryland Court of Appeals on Nov. 29, 2018.
Shamim Rahman, the mother of Adnan Syed, wipes away a tear outside the Maryland Court of Appeals on Nov. 29, 2018. (Brian Witte / AP)

Part of what makes this show worthwhile to those who already listened to “Serial” is simply a result of the difference between a visual medium like TV and an audio one like podcasts.

Seeing the expressive faces of people like Syed’s mother, Shamim Rahman, humanized them and connected me emotionally to this story in ways nothing in “Serial” did.

But the visual enhancements go beyond that.

Director Amy Berg uses the camera as a kind of narrator, transitioning between scenes and shifting focus through a technique of overhead shots of the Baltimore County area where the story took place.

I often felt submerged in details in “Serial,” but here the camera would lift me above Leakin Park, where Hae Min Lee’s body was found. Looking down on Woodlawn High School or the mall parking lots where so much of the story took place gave me perspective on the world in which this tragedy played out.

What you lose is host Sarah Koenig’s voice. Millions loved it. I do not miss it.

The presence of Hae Min Lee
Undated Woodlawn High yearbook photo of Hae Min Lee.
Undated Woodlawn High yearbook photo of Hae Min Lee. (Handout / TNS)

Berg’s direction and a fuller chorus of the voices of teachers and classmates brought Lee to life for me in a way “Serial” didn’t.

Neither Koenig nor Berg had full access to the Lee family, but Berg worked harder and more imaginatively to make Hae Min Lee a real presence. She did it most notably through the use of Lee’s diary, which was part of the case file of the original trial.

As a result of Berg’s effort, you cannot watch this series and not come away feeling the enormous sense of loss involved in her death.

And this goes beyond the visual. The voice of her teen diary is captured in a way that makes it resonate and then imprint in memory even after you move away from the screen. The voice is steeped in optimism and vitality, and that makes the act of someone silencing it seem all the more evil.

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A deeper sense of the community

Berg brings new voices from that Woodlawn community to the series, but they are contextualized not so much as teachers or classmates talking from within the window of the 1990s as they were in “Serial.”

They are presented here as adults reflecting back on the murder of Hae Min Lee and how it affected their lives and the community they are still part of by nature of their ‘90s involvement and memories.

I love the way Berg is willing to use facts and new evidence to expose incorrect memories among some of the people interviewed. Too many TV documentaries do not explore the problems with memory and oral history, the currencies of information on which they rely.

Woodlawn High School
Woodlawn High School (André F. Chung / Baltimore Sun)
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