This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Despite playing a role in geek culture for years, it’s taken one expertly told story for podcasts to finally penetrate the mainstream. True Crime podcast Serial received massive acclaim and global attention in 2015, uniting its millions of listeners with a compelling narrative and a terrific storyteller.
With new Netflix series Making A Murderer and FX’s American Crime Story attempting to capture the same public attention, let’s consider what made Serial such a hit.
For the uninitiated, Serial spun off from This American Life, a weekly podcast that unwound from October to December 2014. Its first season picked apart the case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man who was imprisoned at the age of 18 for the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. The dubious evidence piled against Syed is what led the podcast’s narrator, Sarah Koenig (a former producer on This American Life) to do some initial digging, later unearthing some shocking material. Over thirteen fast-moving episodes, season 1 of Serial investigated discarded witnesses, vanishing pay-phones, unexplained and critical phone calls, a mysterious key testifier and murky alibis. The whole thing was presented without visual accompaniment and while that may be an instant turn-off for some, it was evidently not for the podcast’s 80+ million listeners.
This may all be down to Koenig herself who narrates the entire series with interviews and live recordings interspersed (one particularly memorable sequence in season 1 is when she visits Leakin Park, where the body of Hae Min Lee was found, and records her experience). Koenig is a gripping narrator with a calm, understanding, open-minded and, above all, friendly manner. Serial would be nothing without her (in a literal sense as well as she kick-started the project herself). Koenig is aided by the scripts, which are tightly written to keep you engrossed at all times (and if your concentration wavers, Serial repeats key statements or facts but not so much that you notice Koenig re-treading the same ground). Despite the fact that Serial started going out on a weekly basis, the team behind the microphone were still conducting their investigation but, even listening to it now when the season is over, there’s nothing gratuitous there.
It’s easy to forget that Serial isn’t fictional. Some of the revelations and twists are revealed at the perfect moment, with every bit of dramatic potential wrung out so it becomes difficult to remember that Koenig is actually diving back through a real community’s history.
You then find yourself moving onto the larger question of whether it’s appropriate to make an entertainment podcast out of what season 1 ultimately boils down to: a young girl’s murder (It’s interesting and pleasing to note that the majority of online gags born of Serial are largely concentrated on MailChimp, an advert prefixed to every episode, and not the story or people involved). From the beginning, Koenig treats Hae Min Lee’s death with the utmost solemnity, always recognising that a young girl lost her life and never veering into distastefulness.
It becomes increasingly evident across season 1 that Koenig does not believe Adnan Syed is guilty of the murder of Hae Min Lee and her view on it does affect your own opinion. Initially, the evidence stacked against Syed was pitifully weak but, gradually, as the season progressed, the pool of evidence expanded and your opinion swung from ‘guilty’ to ‘innocent’ by the episode. If Serial was fictional, it would be commended for its strong characterisation and riveting plot but also criticised for some of its more unlikely twists. Life truly can be stranger than fiction, as the case of Adnan Syed proves.
Predictably, there was a season 2, which launched in December of last year. Koenig and co. established that they are bold storytellers by taking the leftfield decision to cover the controversial case of Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of war held by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan for five years. The taking of Bergdahl is notable in that the how and the why of his capture has never been fully determined. There are lots of unanswered questions and plenty of uncertainty over whether Bergdahl willingly handed himself over and why he would potentially do so. It’s also an active case, with the U.S. government only recently making the announcement that Bergdahl is to be put to trial for desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy.
Season 2 is different, then, and it hasn’t possessed the broad appeal of the first (because when you got down to it, season 1 was a mystery with a clear question at its core). It divided fans from the off because it hasn’t adhered to the structure laid down by season 1 and there seems to be no obvious conclusion in sight. As it’s an ever-changing case, it’s impossible to predict where the podcast will go (a quick check on Wikipedia would have given series one’s ending away) and while there’s an exciting element of ambiguity, a lot of people have been disappointed because it doesn’t guarantee the same fantastic quality each week. Ultimately, it’s a show that’s going out bi-weekly (a recent change in the scheduling) with the research still ongoing, so you’ve never going to get a consistent tone or the same excellent standard but Serial hits more than it misses (and even when it misses, it’s never dull listening) and there’s always a frisson of excitement regarding the fact you have no idea what’s coming next.
There are many who abandoned season 2 after just one episode and admittedly it’s much more of a slow-burner than the first season. Koenig also has a noticeable detachment from Bergdahl’s case in that her most valuable research is not her own correspondence with Bergdahl, who refused to talk to the podcast, but the soldier’s own interviews with screenwriter Mark Boal, who scripted The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Boal contacted him after his release with the intention of devising a screenplay based on Bergdahl’s experiences, and Boal’s in-depth questioning is what Koenig relies on heavily. The nature of season 2’s case has resulted in the show, as you would expect, going international and it means there’s a wider scope and a greater slew of interviewees. For some it may seem like too large a departure from season 1, but Serial‘s latest run is as gripping and enjoyable as the first, even if it presents itself differently.
Serial has garnered literally millions of fans since it first debuted but its cultural impact has been interesting. To see a podcast be so firmly imbedded in our cultural conscious is groundbreaking and its unique style means it’s easy to trace Serial‘s influence in other media.
Predictably, Saturday Night Live satirised the first season back in 2014 and, for those who have listened to season 1 in its entirety, it’s a spot-on send-up of the podcast. Similarly, the first run of MTV’s Scream featured a character who looked and sounded just like Koenig (with her own podcast, Autopsy Of A Murder). Making A Murderer, Netflix’s new documentary series has been hailed as the streaming service’s response to Serial and there is definitely a crossover, with regards to the genre and the fact Making A Murderer, like season 1 of Serial, poses the question: did a jailed man commit the crime he was imprisoned for?
But perhaps the most noteworthy and exciting offshoot of Serial is the announcement that Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the geniuses behind The LEGO Movie and the Jump Street films amongst others, are working on a scripted series about the making of Serial. This project may never get off the ground (Lord and Miller have a rather crowded slate at the moment) but if it does, it sounds like it could be a fascinating watch.
Serial may seem like an unlikely thing to get invested in but it’s one of the best podcasts out there. Sarah Koenig and co. utilise the format perfectly, crafting an engaging tale told by a captivating storyteller. There’s seldom a dull moment (the biggest fear of many podcast virgins is that it’ll be boring) and the team behind Serial are always respectfully aware of the origins of the story they’re telling.
And then there’s the Nisha call. But more on that next time.