Saturday, December 8, 2018

Serial (podcast)

Emmanuel Dzotsi & Sarah Koenig
Photo: Sandy Honig
Recently, Aaron Sorkin wrote an essay for New York Magazine in which he described the journey of his new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He was tasked with a seemingly intractable puzzle; stay entirely faithful to the original without changing a thing, but make it fresh and new.

While Mockingbird is a widely-cherished piece of work (the book, the original 1990 stage play by Christopher Stergel, and the award-winning film) presenting it as-is to a 2018 audience held a host of challenges; two notable problems are the unchangeable (see: undramatic) character of protagonist Atticus Finch, and the fact that a story which is primarily about race has few characters of color. Those present do not speak very much.

In the first case, Sorkin has addressed the problem of Atticus’s seemingly flawless character by making that his flaw. Atticus Finch believes that, as Sorkin puts it, as another put it before him, “there are fine people on both sides.” His crisis of conscience comes when that belief is permanently shaken.

As to the other, to creating scenes where the Finch housekeeper Calpurnia, and the accused Tom Robinson get to speak their minds where previously they had not, that is an issue where the estate of Harper Lee felt it necessary to take this new production to court.

Unlike in the 1960 novel, this recent trial played out in Mr. Robinson’s favor.

But the trial in this new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird still ends in tragedy, as it must. Justice is denied. And the frustration felt by Atticus Finch and the disillusionment experienced by his young daughter Scout remains the main focus of this story, the one white Americans who love it most relate to.

Sorkin here quotes his friend and colleague, director David Fincher, stating, “art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them.” The internet tells me it was actually the playwright Anton Chekhov who said that, but who knows. The point is, Mockingbird remains a troubling work, and in an era where violence against black men in America by those in authority is still an everyday occurrence, is it enough to simply ask questions? Do we not demand answers?

Justice is also the theme of the third season of the podcast Serial. A spin-off from This American Life, the concept is simple -- instead of one, brief story, or one episode-long story, one entire modern American mystery is investigated over the course of weeks.

It would have been hard to top Serial’s first season, and it was. The 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee had much going for it to create a pop culture phenomenon; teen sex, interracial relationships, Islamophobia, drugs, an attractive anti-hero in the convicted boyfriend, Adnan Syed, and even late 90s nostalgia (pinging cell towers, anyone?)

Episode Six mural art by Martinez E-B
Photo by Moth Studio
And then there is the producer-host, Sarah Koenig, who has no qualms about crossing journalistic boundaries and becoming part of the story. She breaks the cardinal rule of impartiality, developing something of a crush on Syed, and openly expressing confusion and concern about what the truth actually is, which is fine for me because 1) she’s entirely up-front and transparent about it and 2) who the fuck is impartial anymore?

Season two was something of a let-down. The Bowe Bergdahl case, a story of American involvement in Afghanistan, was compelling, fascinating even. But as a central character Bergdahl is, excuse me for saying so, boring. Worse, I don’t like him. Worse, I don’t care about him.

Season three left me emotionally startled at the jump, and kept me there, and for very personal reasons. They broke the mold of the first two seasons by changing focus from a single mystery to be plumbed (a murder, a disappearance) to a larger social ill to be remedied -- namely, the American criminal justice system. And the main character was not a person, but a city. Cleveland.

For nine weeks, Koenig and reporter-producer Emmanuel Dzotsi set up shop in the Justice Center downtown, and followed the stories they found there, drawing a complex web of tales depicting a dysfunctional system through which we meet a engaging collection of characters (people) in places a little too close for comfort.

In episode six (You In the Red Shirt) a citizen is harassed by East Cleveland officers in “the park.” It’s not just any park, though. They say its proper name just once, Forest Hill Park. I take a run in that park every day. There is a world within my world of which I remain blithely ignorant.

I am not going to describe the stories, these citizens, you need to listen to the podcast yourself. Perhaps you already have. But I was startled by how Koenig chose to conclude, with a litany of suggestions. And it’s a long list.
“Don't pile six charges onto a single crime when one charge will do. Don't overcharge to force a guilty plea. Don't lock anyone up, unless they're demonstrably violent. Admit that police officers lie under oath. Get out of the punishment business and turn toward the urgent problem of fairness.”
She goes on for four paragraphs. In this holiday season, she even quotes Dickens: “Don't be insensibly tempted ... into a loose way of letting bad things alone to take their own bad course.”

Her final word is, “Let's all accept that something's gone wrong. Let's make that our premise.”

And so, they say that art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them. But these days, it is as though even journalism -- tasked with reporting the truth -- doesn’t even ask the questions. Koenig and her team do ask questions, some very difficult questions.

And they dare to provide some answers. Because for God’s sake someone has to.

Behind the Scenes of Serial Season Three, featuring Sarah Koenig and Emamanuel Dzotsi, comes to Playhouse Square on Saturday, December 15, 2018.

SeriaLand, a blog by Cleveland attorney Rebecca Maurer, providing greater historical context to Serial Season Three.

Cleveland Talks Serial, a podcast produced by IdeaStream. A round table discussion on the series.

Serial (podcast)

"Bringing To Kill a Mockingbird to Broadway was nearly impossible" by Aaron Sorkin, New York Magazine 11/26/2018

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