“Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial unfolds one story - a true story - over the course of a whole season. The show follows the plot and characters wherever they lead, through many surprising twists and turns. Sarah won’t know what happens at the end of the story until she gets there, not long before you get there with her. Each week she’ll bring you the latest chapter, so it’s important to listen in, starting with Episode 1.”
I don’t know where you’ve been if you haven’t already heard of and listened to Serial, but this breakout cult phenomenon was everywhere when it first premiered in October of 2014. As with a select few other shows reviewed here, it’s rare (though constantly growing less so) that a podcast permeates the bubble of going from being popular in the podcast world to being popular in mainstream culture, but Serial has certainly accomplished that feat, particularly with season 1 of the show. That Serial is yet another of Ira Glass’ creations/productions must not be overlooked either.
Where This American Life is a show that brings a different theme, and several stories on that theme, each episode, Serial takes a slightly different route. Serial is a podcast that takes one story and spins it out over the course of an entire season. Though entirely different formats, both This American Life and Serial were groundbreaking in the world of podcasting, which can be demonstrated in the vast number of spin-offs/copycats that each show spawned. They both basically laid the foundations for entirely new audio genres.
Because Serial essentially reinvents itself each season with an entirely new story, it’s important to consider each season separately. Before doing that, however, I’ll note that despite the reinventions, what remains consistent in Serial is the quality with which it is presented, and the lengths that Sarah and the producers go to tell each story accurately and fully.
Season 1 of Serial was, as mentioned, a breakout hit. It seemed to sweep through American culture by storm, and there were articles written about it in just about every major newspaper and magazine. The concept was relatively simple, though the execution of course was likely extremely difficult and time-consuming: To investigate thoroughly, from top to bottom, the solved case of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999 by Adnan Syed. I want to use the phrase “allegedly by Adnan Syed,” but that wouldn’t be appropriate as he was convicted of the crime. But he, his family, and members of the community insist on his innocence, emphasizing a litany of complaints regarding Adnan’s due process, including apparently shoddy police work, an ineffective defense lawyer, evidence against the conclusion of his guilt, and a lack of understanding of the process as it occurred. And that is, more or less, the podcast in a nutshell--we follow Sarah as she uncovers clues and evidence for and against the guilt of Adnan, interviews friends, family, and those involved in the case, and attempts to come to some sort of conclusion about the case. Needless to say, considering the popularity of this season, Sarah and her team execute all of this perfectly, with nail-biters, cliffhangers, and twists in each and every episode.
Because of the nature of the show, talking much more about the content of this season risks spoiling it, so I’ll talk instead about its impact. This may not have been the first true-crime podcast, but it’s the first to do true-crime the right way, and its success shows. Nowadays, there’s a new true-crime podcast that follows Serial’s formula of a season-long investigation almost every week, it seems, and each has been a phenomenon in its own right, from In the Dark to Accused to the newest of the genre, Up and Vanished. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that Serial also had a real-world impact in the fact that Adnan Syed has been granted a retrial. It’s these two sorts of impacts that make Serial as a whole and in context more important than the content of any given season.
Season 2 of Serial was widely viewed as far less successful and interesting than season 1, but not by me. In fact, I found Season 2, which investigated the disappearance of Bowe Bergdahl, his subsequent capture and torture by the Taliban over nearly five years, and finally his release in exchange for five Taliban members, to be both deeply fascinating and deeply satisfying. Oh, and it also tells of all the political drama and media misrepresentation and spin that occurred throughout the entire saga, of course. Not to spoil it for anyone, but let’s just say that the story you heard about in the media when Bergdahl went missing and was released is emphatically not the whole story. This season was a not-so-subtle reminder that our news doesn’t come from unbiased sources but from human beings who have not only a propensity to misunderstand and/or misrepresent the facts (or even to fail to report relevant facts that don’t fit their story), but also an agenda that skews left or right or somewhere else entirely. Perhaps I’m being unfair, so let me give my most charitable interpretation of why season 2 was potentially even more important than season 1: News is complicated. Journalism is complicated. If you think you’re getting even close to a full representation of a story from an hourly news show that might dedicate at most fifteen minutes to a given topic, then you’re dead wrong. What you need are hours, plural. And not hours of talking heads, but hours of primary source material and interviews. And that’s what Serial season 2 (and season 1 for that matter) gives you.
Anyway, if you haven’t already listened to both seasons of Serial, do yourself a favor and go back now and binge them. If you have, then you probably recognize the importance of what this podcast is doing, and you’re eagerly awaiting the distant premiere of season 3...
Sarah Koenig is perfect. The way she investigates with you, the way she learns with you, is unparalleled.
Almost every episode is a nail-biter
I have high hopes for the next season.
Generally 30 minutes - 1 hour.
Overall Score: 9.4/10
All of them. Be sure to start from the beginning.
If you like this podcast, you’ll probably like:
- This American Life
- In the Dark
- Up and Vanished