Serial (Podcast Season 1, 2014)

Serial podcast logoI just finished listening to Serial’s first season, which I started just a few days ago. The 12 podcast episodes were released between October 3 and December 18, and the show has become phenomenon enough to inspire waves of critical analysis and backlash, in addition to a reportedly large and evidently enthusiastic fandom. You should check it out; strictly on its own merits, this is a great program (many have likened it to a cable-TV prestige series, à la True Detective), and the Internet water cooler discussion has something for everyone.

Podcasts are the audio equivalent of blogs. They can be any length or form, and vary wildly in quality. I used to subscribe to podcasts of NPR programs, which were the same recordings that had been broadcast on public radio. Serial is produced by public radio’s This American Life team, and the production values and tone are similar. Serial’s first episode debuted on This American Life, but subsequent episodes have been podcast-only.

Serial is about host Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of a Baltimore teenager. A former boyfriend was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, despite a complete lack of physical evidence. Koenig begins with an exercise: “Describe what you were doing last Wednesday between 2:15 and 2:36 pm. Now try to recall Wednesday six weeks ago.” Koenig draws on trial transcripts, boxes of evidence from the original investigation, and new interviews with many of the key players. Koenig states at the outset that she has no idea how the story will finish – although she spent a year doing research, she includes new information as it emerges, some of which comes from people who have listened to previous episodes.

Serial plays like a murder mystery, except there is doubt from the onset about whether the mystery will be solved. Serial is really about the process of reporting, because Sarah Koenig shares her thought process as it goes along. Like the best fiction, it also inspires new ways of thinking in its audience. At the end, Serial has no clear heroes or villains, and the conclusions one might draw say as much about the observer as they do about the story itself. I know I’ve found myself thinking many times over the past few days, “I wonder why so-and-so [in my own life] said and did whatever – what perspective makes their story more comprehensible to me?” Roger Ebert famously said that movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” and Serial has prompted me in that direction, as much as any movie I’ve seen, or any book I’ve listened to.

Serial has also inspired some great writing. A quick search produces links to all kinds of analysis, as well as thoughtful criticism/backlash, and backlash against the backlash. Some debate the ethics of Koenig’s reporting, others question the bias inherent in her “white reporter privilege” (Serial’s principal characters include blacks, Pakistani Muslims, and Koreans.) There are podcasts about this podcast, some extremely funny parodies, and a subreddit (like an online self-organizing bulletin board) that examines every aspect of the case. One story likens all of these resources to “rabbit holes in rabbit holes.” It’s fertile ground, and as I said, there’s something for everyone.

If you’re looking for a great story, well told, they don’t get much better than Serial. I look forward to Season 2, which is expected to be about something entirely different. But who knows? That’s part of the fun.