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'The Case Against Adnan Syed' review: Flawed docuseries revisits 'Serial' 

"The Case Against Adnan Syed," a four-part documentary

"The Case Against Adnan Syed," a four-part documentary series, starts Sunday on HBO. Credit: HBO

DOCUSERIES "The Case Against Adnan Syed"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT On Jan. 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old Korean-American high school senior, who lived just outside Baltimore, disappeared. Her body was found four weeks later, buried in a shallow grave in a Baltimore city park. Her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, also 18, was charged with the murder on the basis of sworn testimony by a friend, Jay Wilds, who said Syed had strangled Lee, and then sought his help in disposing the body. Syed is now serving a life sentence.

Those are the undisputed facts and just about the only ones that are. In 2014, NPR journalists Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder devoted the first season of their groundbreaking podcast, “Serial,” to the case. It became a cultural sensation. This four-part HBO film by Amy Berg covers the same ground, and interviews many of the same people, including high school friends of Lee and — of particular interest in this case — Asia McClain, another student who believes she was in the high school library with Syed at the time of the murder.

The Maryland Court of Appeals denied a new trial Friday, March 8.

MY SAY Berg, this film’s producer, is a gifted filmmaker who has tackled complicated and deeply painful subjects over the years, including sexual abuse of children. She was also behind last year’s under-the-radar Netflix gem, “Dogs” — itself life-affirming, and deeply moving. Berg can do it all and has done it all. Yet watching “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” you may begin to suspect — I did — that she has met her match with this fraught story.

“Serial” took a little-known crime and turned it into a worldwide obsession. Reddit, where obsessions undergo plutonium enrichment, then took up the cause. “The Case Against Adnan Syed” has to back into the maelstrom and then begin to make sense of it. Berg does this by picking up all the threads, then following them to their logical or illogical conclusion. (Some threads are abandoned altogether.) Why didn't the cellphone records match up with what Wilds told the police? Why didn’t the state’s prosecutor reach out to McClain? Why did Wilds change parts of his story?

Berg then goes farther down the rabbit hole, where things get seriously loopy. Example: A couple of private investigators are brought in from New York who then hire a “turf specialist” — an expert in grasses. They want to find out if Lee’s car, which Wilds  said he parked, would have affected the grasses beneath it.

Reddit may love this irrelevant exercise in padding. Everyone else will reach for an Excedrin. Or scoff. Both reactions seem reasonable.

The best of the three hours provided for review is the first. Deploying stop-motion animation, “The Case” takes extensive outtakes from Lee’s personal diary written before her death and splashes them across the screen, revealing an impetuous teen with a big heart. Lee thus steps front and center into her own tragic story. Syed is frequently heard off-screen, a voice from a jail cell proclaiming his innocence. He sounds jaunty and relaxed.

What’s missing in “The Case” is troubling. Neither the prosecutors nor detectives are interviewed. Wilds himself is never heard from, although “The Case” takes up a good part of the second hour to impugn his character.

Then there is Lee’s family. They are living near Baltimore: Hollowed out, still grieving, probably bewildered by all this attention. None speak for this film, although “The Case” makes clear they are confident Syed is guilty. One of Lee’s friends says they all died the day the beloved daughter and sister was found. Someone else is now “living in their bodies,” this friend explains. It’s the only line from these three hours that actually sticks.

BOTTOM LINE Comprehensive yet still incomplete, “The Case” gets entangled in the underbrush and can’t quite seem to find its way to either a conclusion or the truth. But there is a fourth hour to go. Maybe then?     

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