The story on Serial began with a meditation on the malleability of the truth and ended with a much better-informed meditation on the malleability on the truth. The story of Serial began as a humble This American Life spinoff and ended as a phenomenon of iTunes sales, Slate thinkpieces and metapodcasts. In between, this unique marriage of TV crime drama tropes and investigative reporting instincts led listeners on a journey that plumbed the baffling depths of the American criminal justice system, exposed the blurry line between unbiased reporting and biased speculation, and asserted the audio podcast as a viable storytelling medium. Oh, and Mail Kimp exists.
I credit my initial foray into Serial to Patton Oswalt, of all people. Three weeks into its twelve-week run, the comedian and actor tweeted effusively about the show.
That endorsement was too enthusiastic and tapped into too many of my interests for me to resist. As it turned out, that wasn’t the last tweet I’d read about Serial. Shortly after I started listening, the reach of Serial started to expand beyond the world of affluent liberal consumers of intellectual media projects. Slate afforded the show an entire URL, complete with dozens of articles and podcasts. The iTunes sales figures skyrocketed. Key “characters” from the show started appearing on morning television. And the weekly fulfillment of anticipation on Thursday morning turned into something of an Internet meme, so much so that it inspired its own Funny Or Die video.
This kind of cultural penetration doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen often. Serial satisfied two different desires with equal impact, arriving at a largely unprecedented idea of storytelling that prompted as much metacommentary about the nature of storytelling as it did discussion of the story itself.
Host Sarah Koenig seemed acutely aware of her show’s increasingly rabid fanbase, but she rarely deferred to the rising conventional wisdom or even referred to it on the show itself. With today’s final episode, she proved immune to the increasing hunger for definitive answers or a dramatic reversal of the fifteen year-old case she spent the last fifteen months investigating. Serial may have felt like a television show at times, with recurring characters, an affable narrator, eerily effective musical cues and the occasional dab of humor punctuating the grim subject matter, but it was never going to end like one. There are real lives on the line. The Adnan Sayed case is still in progress, and glib conclusions could have serious legal and ethical implications. The ending we got may not be the ending listeners expect, having been trained on tidy conclusions for stories about crime onscreen and in books, but it’s the one listeners deserve.
Koenig took a risk with this approach, though. She led listeners down a path that seemed to lend itself to a point of convergence, but in fact she was doing the opposite: taking a story that ended definitively in a court of law and giving it a complex second life, marked by contradictory viewpoints and intricate analysis. Presenting the story as an ongoing narrative runs contrary to the “inverted pyramid” theory of journalism – put the best stuff first. On Serial, the best stuff came when Sarah Koenig wanted it to come. You can quibble with Koenig’s execution – her dismissal of evidence that appeared important, her subjective judgments of the facts, her brush with white privilege – but her motives remained clear throughout the series. An interesting story, compellingly delivered, reveals more than the facts of the story itself.
As she waded through the facts of Sayed’s case, Koenig covered corruption in the police department, malpractice in the courtroom, negligence in record-keeping, racism in local communities and social pressures in high school, among other topics. Though Koenig rarely called attention to the underlying social commentary in her reporting, the facts of the case spoke for themselves. Whether he’s guilty or innocent, Adnan Sayed is in jail because his defense was incompetent and the jury decision didn’t reflect the myriad holes in the prosecution’s case. Jury decisions have rarely been more on the forefront of Americans’ minds than in the last few months, when the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner went legally unavenged within a week of each other. Serial offers a critique of that system from within a juicy story of confused timelines and contradictory statements.
Beyond its obvious popular impact, Serial boasts numerous other merits, some of which have gone largely undiscussed. Three of those:
- The podcast showcases immaculate production work from Koenig and her team (including co-executive producer Julie Snyder). Especially given the time constraints – Koenig has described finishing episodes just hours or even minutes before they go live – and the complex swirl of reported details, it’s remarkable that the episodes unfold almost casually, with Koenig’s winning narration endearing viewers to her exploratory ambitions and the wonderful score from Nick Thorburn quietly cultivating a tone of gravitas. Koenig’s decision to include recorded interviews with Sayed and other key figures adds emotion to what might otherwise have been a cold perusal of the facts.
- The Thursday morning released schedule proved extremely savvy, as podcasts are most often consumed during commutes, which happen most consistently in the morning. Waking up to a new episode of Serial made the last stretch of the work week feel a bit more conquerable.
- Though some pundits rightfully questioned whether the show’s journalism was doing more damage to the subjects than it seemed on the surface, Serial did a surprisingly good job of acknowledging the effect that this national spotlight played in her reporting and on her sources’ willingness to speak. Adnan’s letter at the end of Episode 11 is a particularly strong example of the show acknowledging the possible negative consequence of its prying.
Most stories won’t lend themselves to the Serial format. And anyone who tries to replicate the Serial model risks making the mistakes that Sarah Koenig largely avoided making during the podcast’s first season. But it’s not every day that a Baltimore murder case inspires the level of rabbit-hole Internet speculation that accompanies puzzle-box TV shows like Lost and True Detective. It remains to be seen whether Adnan Sayed will win his upcoming appeal, and it’s unlikely that anyone will ever know definitively what happened on the afternoon of January 13, 1999. But for twelve weeks, Serial approached the answer with riveting results.