Released in October 2014 and anchored by reporter Sarah Koenig, the first season of the weekly investigative yarn revisited the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee, and the person convicted of killing her, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.
Its questioning of whether Syed was actually guilty of the crime gripped listeners (it became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes history), spawned a brigade of armchair detectives and Reddit threads, and made podcasts mainstream in a way no other had before — even “Saturday Night Live” took notice.
Berg was captivated by “Serial” at first listen. She’s a veteran of the genre as director of acclaimed true-crime documentaries such as “Deliver Us from Evil,” about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and “West of Memphis,” about the wrongful conviction of the West Memphis Three.
“The podcast was my best friend on all my trips,” Berg recalled in a recent interview. “Whenever I had a flight, I was so excited because I could get through three or four episodes. I was completely addicted to it.”
But the ending, she says, left her frustrated.
“I was wanting more information,” she explained. “It was like, maybe he didn’t do it or maybe he did. I felt it was building up toward this ending and all of a sudden we just didn’t know what happened at the end. I spent a lot of time sleuthing around.”
In fact, she’s spent about three years sleuthing around.
The result is the four-part HBO documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed.” Premiering Sunday, on the heels of the 20th anniversary of Syed’s imprisonment, the documentary revisits some of what “Serial” covered while also picking up where it left off; filling in gaps, revealing new evidence, and examining the racial aspects of the case. And it puts a face to many of the voices heard in the podcast.
Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s family friend who was featured in the podcast and has been a steadfast advocate, is credited among the producers of the documentary. But Berg insists Chaudry’s involvement didn’t alter the outlook of the documentary.
“I was very clear with my producers from the beginning that I didn’t know if he was innocent,” Berg said. “We collectively agreed that if we found something that was pointing more towards his [involvement], that was the story I was going to tell.”
The documentary arrives as Maryland’s Court of Appeals determined Friday that Syed was not deserving of a new trial, reinstating his conviction. Syed’s conviction had been overturned in 2016 and a new trial was ordered in the wake of “Serial’s” popularity; Maryland appealed and won. Adnan, now 38, is currently serving a life sentence at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland.
The documentary faces another challenge: the HBO series comes nearly five years after public interest in the case was at its peak and is tasked with bringing something dynamic to a case many followers feel they already know.
Maintaining public interest is a key focus for Chaudry, whose quest to get the case attention all those years ago when she reached out to Koenig was coincidentally spurred after having watched Berg’s “West of Memphis.”
“When you have a journalist or a documentarian or some other outside investigator looking, it helps a great deal,” she noted. “You have to find people who really take it seriously and are not sensationalist; who want to get at the heart of the matter.… Even if this doesn’t work, we’re not done. We’re going to keep trying.”
Berg spoke to Syed, his defense team and his family — and had access to 15 boxes of files about the case provided by Chaudry. The documentary also features interviews with friends, classmates and teachers of both Lee and Syed, including Asia McClain, Syed’s former classmate who believes she saw him in the library the afternoon Lee was murdered (a new trial would have allowed for her testimony to be heard); and Aisha Pittman, Lee’s best friend.
An integral voice added to the mix of key characters is Susan Simpson, a lawyer who wrote about the case on her blog and also co-hosted a podcast, “Undisclosed,” about it after listening to “Serial.” She closely examines the prosecution’s reliance on cellphone data.
The high interest surrounding the case made it crucial to figure out how fame and money factored in to the story — Berg said none of those who participated in interviews for the documentary were paid — and how stories have evolved with time.
“There are people that have been so devastated by this experience that they’re stuck in the past,” Berg said “You have to balance out what they’re saying now versus what they said back then and see if they’re actually telling the truth. We didn’t really run into that much in this project. What we ran into was more about the notoriety and fame of being a character in a story that went viral. So we had to be careful.” (Without offering a name, Berg said there was one person whose account was ultimately shelved because his or her story didn’t feel truthful.)
One of the main things Berg says she wanted to accomplish in the documentary was bringing Lee to life. The opening minutes of the first installment features an animation of Lee reading passages from her diary courtesy of a voice-over actor.
“I wanted to bring her to life as a young woman who had a life in front of her,” Berg noted. “I really spent a lot of time reading her journal entries and trying to get a sense of who she was — she was a very athletic, strong young woman. We wanted to show her as who she really was with all the color and feistiness and love and all the passion in her heart, as well as just visualizing her properly.”
Chaudry stresses that the pursuit to exonerate Syed is not meant to pull focus from Lee.
“People tend to think these are, for some reason, contradictory goals,” she says. “This is all the same side of the issue. Exonerating Adnan means compelling the state to take another look at this case.”
Though Syed’s conviction was reinstated, the fight continues for his supporters. Even before the ruling came through, Berg was skeptical the sought-after new trial would materialize.
“I got to this place where I realized he’s never going to get a new trial,” she said. “No matter what happens, these appeals will run out. That’s not going to give us the ending that we had hoped for. Maybe this film is his trial. I don’t know. I think that it really examines things that you would see in a trial if there was one today.”
‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)