HBO’s ‘Case Against Adnan Syed’ Is as Addictive as ‘Serial’

When Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast came out in 2014, it became an instant sensation. As anyone who made one of the 175 million downloads knows, it tells the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student, and the conviction of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, for the crime.

So much went wrong during Adnan’s trial that Koenig, an investigative journalist, took a fresh look. What she uncovered was extraordinary, and tens of millions finished the podcast believing Adnan Syed is innocent. (The case may next go to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

When Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg turned recent developments in the case into a documentary for HBO, we wondered if it could match the power of Serial. After the first part of four aired Sunday March 10, it became clear Berg’s take could hold its own.

In fact, with the visual element on its side, The Case Against Adnan Syed may be even more addictive than Serial.

Seeing Adnan and Hae Min Lee shine

Hae Min Lee comes to life in the HBO doc. | HBO

While Serial told its compelling story with the help of supplemental materials, phone (and web) technology has come a long way since 2014. As you begin watching The Case Against Adnan Syed, you realize how much the podcast missed out on the visual aspects of the story.

One major upgrade get hinted at by Adnan himself in the documentary. At one point, he says something along the lines of “people who know Serial don’t know Hae” like he did.

Berg’s documentary changes that. We see Hae in photos playing field hockey, dressed for the prom, and enjoying time with friends. (She’s always beaming, with a big smile.) Meanwhile, the filmmakers found a way to make her diary come to life on the screen with some neat visual tricks.

That adds an immeasurable amount to the power of the story. The same goes for Adnan, whose family we get to know intimately in the documentary. (Rabia Chaudry, an attorney who’s a friend of the Syed family, has kept Adnan’s story alive and factors heavily in the HBO doc.)

While there are still the typical documentary cliches of investigators carrying around boxes of files and evidence, one thing is clear: Adnan and Hae’s story needed this documentary. It’s utterly compelling.

‘The Case Against Adnan’ leaves viewers with a familiar feeling.

Adnan remains a sympathetic figure in Berg’s telling. | HBO

When Serial became popular, fans spoke of being unable to contain themselves until the next download. After the end of the first hour of Berg’s four-part film, you get that familiar feeling.

As with Serial, it seems impossible to believe Adnan is guilty when you hear him speak about Hae and look at the case’s timeline. However, almost as easily, you begin wondering how the murder could have happened if Adnan didn’t do it.

If you want new revelations in the case, Berg’s documentary delivers on that front as well. In Episode Two, we’ll get to hear from Adnan’s alibi, the girl who never appeared in court and nearly demonstrated the need for a new trial.

The bottom line: Serial fans won’t regret a second spent watching this new HBO series.

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