'The Case Against Adnan Syed': TV Review

Proves its value by foregrounding the strong women in this saga.
3/10/2019

Amy Berg's four-part HBO docuseries isn't as compulsively devourable as the 'Serial' podcast, but it does a much better job of giving voice to Hae Min Lee as an important part of Adnan Syed's story.

When Netflix and directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos returned for a second helping of Making a Murderer last fall, they discovered the difficulty of rekindling a viral sensation, of recapturing a narrative that was appropriated by amateur gumshoes and online naysayers.

An argument for a shifting of authorship and a change of medium, Amy Berg's four-part HBO documentary series The Case Against Adnan Syed functions as a complement to the first season of Sarah Koenig's Serial podcast. It probably won't generate its own obsession, and the chapter in the case is, through its first three hours, less compulsively devourable, but Berg's series has an approach to the story that's distinctive and satisfying in its own right.

To recap: In 1999, high school senior Hae Min Lee disappeared from her Baltimore County hometown. Her body was found a month later in Baltimore's notorious Leakin Park and Hae's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged with and convicted of her murder. The release of Serial in 2014 brought Syed's case to a wider audience and, over the course of 12 episodes, built a word-of-mouth fascination based on cell-tower pinging, burgeoning resentment around defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez and a cast of colorful characters including Adnan's pothead friend Jay, ignored alibi witness Asia McClain and Koenig herself, whose journey of conflicted credulity formed the podcast's spine. Serial spawned several additional podcasts, a flurry of books and a 2016 appeal that marks the beginning of The Case Against Adnan Syed.

Berg has experience doing mop-up duty on a phenomenon of legal injustice. Her 2012 documentary West of Memphis arrived at the tail end of a case that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had been chronicling in-depth dating back to 1996. West of Memphis is a solid and well-synthesized documentary that lacks the breathtaking immediacy of the Paradise Lost films, which hold a place alongside Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line as progenitors to our current true crime craze. West of Memphis had some differences in approach from the Paradise Lost series and it's unquestionably a work of more polish and cohesiveness, but there was no way for Berg to replicate the stoked flames of outrage, paranoia and, ultimately vindication.

Case Against Adnan Syed is at its worst when it's repeating and reciting the skewed details and compromised evidence that led to Adnan's imprisonment in the first place. The second episode in particular, running comfortably over an hour, is a litany of He Said/Jay Said inconsistencies and the sort of point-by-point evisceration of early cellphone records that Berg probably needed a more creative way of visualizing. As it stands, the episode is a blur of contradictions drawing on trial footage, new interviews with people in Jay's sphere of friends and audio from police statements that the director only spices up with the twin scourges of documentary filmmaking circa 2019 — ill-considered reenactments with no aesthetic value and monotonous drone shots that don't match the tone of the piece. When Case Against Adnan Syed is just mimicking Serial, it's not very good.

In Serial, Adnan was the focal hero, albeit with anti-hero trappings, with Koenig casting herself as a wry, intrepid female lead. Lee had virtually no presence in the podcast and it was a major deficiency. Here, Berg works doggedly to reinstate the primary victim into a narrative that's better for Lee being acknowledged and dimensionalized, including context for why Baltimore's Korean-American community felt betrayed by local justice and what this case meant to them at the time and now. Even if her family members didn't participate, Lee is given a voice through home-video footage as well as her diary, entries of which we hear via voiceover and see brought to life via animated sequences. She comes across as achingly romantic, funny, smart and dedicated. Lee is also celebrated and memorialized by her high school friends and frequently acknowledged and honored by Syed's family. The series rarely loses sight of Lee's humanity and, instead of indulging in further hagiography for Syed, builds out a story of strong women.

There are new figures, like lawyer Susan Simpson, whose post-Serial blog posts attracted Berg's attention and whose determination still stands out even as that second episode becomes an eye-glazing montage of cell data printouts. Then there are the figures from the margins of Serial who get to step into the spotlight here. The series could easily be entirely about Rabia Chaudry, who brought the case to Koenig in the first place and is a heroic figure mobilizing the forces in Syed's defense, continuing to rattle social media cages and refusing to be deterred when she's made to follow the appeal from a nearby Dunkin' Donuts rather than the courtroom. Asia McClain, cheekily interviewed in a library to mirror the alibi she offered Syed, and Lee's friends Aisha Pittman, Krista Meyers and Debbie Warren are among the interview subjects who illustrate the ripples of shared pain and collective exhaustion that the case has wrought over nearly 20 years now.

The series proves its worth as the camera holds on the steady resolve of Syed's mother Shamim Rahman or captures Berg, in one of her rare insertions into the narrative, making a key witness reconsider her memory of a crucial event using only a community college schedule. It's a chronicle of damage done that a podcast could speak to, but not necessarily illustrate.

Although it's just a simple legal formulation, the series' title might give the impression that The Case Against Adnan Syed is attempting to counter or correct Serial and its pro-Adnan sensitivities. It's not, though with one episode left unseen I'm not sure what the show is using as a destination or goal. Unlike Koenig, Berg isn't trying to exonerate Syed, nor is she exactly trying to solve the case. A couple of private investigators brought on by the production have, thus far, added nothing and the lone floated alternative perp, the internet's favorite suspect Don, is a thread only briefly pursued. Given where the case still stands, there's little hope of a satisfactory legal resolution there, either. For now, Berg's giving a voice to Lee and a platform to crusaders like Chaudry and Simpson is enough.

Premieres: Sunday, March 10, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)