“Serial” Season 2: Slow Rollout

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The final episode of Serial season one arrived amid a flurry of online excitement. The thinkpieces flowed like lava from a volcano — an apt metaphor given the temperature of some of the takes. Speculation about the perceived guilt or innocence of the show’s principal subject Adnan Sayed ran rampant, as did spirited debates about whether the series owed its captive audience a definitive conclusion. The show’s prominence grew so rapidly over its first three months that it warranted a Funny or Die parody starring Michaela Watkins and an SNL parody starring Cecily Strong.

It was a strange moment of mass adulation for what was, at its root, an act of thorough, rigorous journalism, blown out to epic proportions with the help of Sarah Koenig’s compelling delivery, eerily catchy theme music and the production’s team savvy week-by-week rollout. Suddenly, media outlets and pop culture consumers tackled a podcast about the localized failures of the American criminal justice system with the same fervor that they would the latest superhero movie or hourlong TV drama. When the dust settled, attentions quickly turned to speculation about the show’s seemingly endless possibilities for next steps.

Then a year went by. Radio silence.

The gap between the last episode of Serial season one and the first episode of Serial season two spanned 357 days. In that time, presumably, the Serial staff conducted much of the reporting that eventually appeared, or informed what did appear, in the eleven episodes of the show’s second season, in addition to due diligence on other stories that either fell through the cracks, proved less worthy of exploration via podcast than initially assumed, or still could appear on a future Serial endeavor.

When Serial season two did appear, roughly two and a half months after the show’s staff rather tactlessly debunked what turned out to be an accurate report by Maxim magazine about the subject matter of the second season, the reaction (or at least my impression of it from within the confines of my media bubble) was a mixture of “Yay!” “Huh?” and “Oh,” roughly in order of appearance. It was great to have the show back, exciting to see it tackling a subject that already had a significant presence in the mainstream national media, and intriguing to imagine how the second season might emulate or depart from the techniques that made the first such a success.

But the media frenzy around the new season quickly dissipated as the season unfurled, even as the download numbers stayed high. Pundits like the Serial Spoiler Special team on Slate lamented the show’s absence from the center of the pop culture conversation and wondered if perhaps Serial had whiffed its second time at bat, both in terms of its choice of story and its approach to that story.

My own relationship with the show changed this year too. I dropped everything I was doing on Thursday mornings during season one to devour the latest episode, waiting on the edge of my proverbial seat to hear the plot twists and new characters host Sarah Koenig had in store. This season, I let episodes sit for a few days before starting them. My attention sometimes wandered while I was playing the particularly jargon-heavy installments. Once, during the latter half of the season when new episodes appeared every other week, I waited until the night before the next episode dropped to listen to the previous one, more out of a sense of resigned obligation than feverish excitement.

Koenig and the show’s staff are at least partially to blame for my waning Serial enthusiasm this year. The decision to obfuscate in the press for months on end about the topic of season two, only to surprise-drop the season premiere Beyonce-style one late November morning, struck me as unnecessarily precious. Similarly, the mid-season decision to subvert the show’s “one story told week by week” conceit by spreading out episodes over two weeks, ostensibly to allow the staff to conduct more thorough reporting, robbed the show of the sense of urgency that drove season one to unprecedented heights. I was similarly perturbed by the announcement this past Wednesday that the following morning’s episode would be the final one of the season, closing the book on a narrative that I didn’t feel had reached its climax or logical point of finality.

And yet — despite these complaints, Serial season two should not be remembered entirely as a disappointment, a failed experiment or a letdown. It should be remembered as a re-prioritization, an acknowledgment of the podcast medium’s flexibility and an assertion that reporting on global issues need not always seek to please or flatter its audience at every turn.

Serial season one captured widespread attention by emulating the structure and syntax of a medium and genre that has proven durable on television and in other media for decades: the crime procedural. The rigorous timing of the unspooling episodes, the painstaking consideration of facts and evidence, the introduction of colorful characters who shaped and altered the narrative and the soothing guidance of Sarah Koening’s informed yet informal vocal stylings tugged viewers along in search of answers. That those answers never materialized was the first indication that expectations for Serial had differed and would continue to differ from the show’s ambitions. Serial was never designed to be primarily a piece of narrative entertainment, though narrative entertainment was certainly a part of the bill of goods it was selling, and a foregrounded element of the first season.

In tackling the high-profile case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who wandered off his army base in Afghanistan in 2009 only to face imprisonment by the Taliban for five years before setting off a political firestorm upon his return to the United StatesSerial changed course in season two. While the superficial elements of individual episodes and a gradually building narrative remained intact, the sense of searching for clues and crusading for justice disappeared this year, in place of thornier ideas: should desertion be a crime? Has Bergdahl suffered enough? Why did he do what he did? Do his motivations matter to the people who claim his actions came at the cost of other innocent lives?

Season two didn’t answer these questions so much as look at them from all angles, as Serial has been wont to do in both seasons. This story didn’t lend itself to the kind of linear storytelling that made the first season so addictive, but that doesn’t mean the reporting wasn’t thorough, and that Serial failed. It means that Serial isn’t going to deliver a neatly structured narrative with familiar archetypes and story beats as it did in its first season. Perhaps the decision to name the podcast after the technique many television shows use to build loyal viewership, stringing storylines together over multiple episodes and letting past events have concrete effects on present ones, led listeners astray. But some serial stories take abstract paths to the enlightenment they seek to deliver.

That doesn’t mean you’re wrong to have found this season of Serial less engaging than the previous one. Just because Serial tried to tell its story in a different way than it did last year doesn’t mean that the show succeeded at every attempt. From my vantage point, some episodes this season, particularly in the early stretch when Koenig and her team were apparently scrambling to make deadlines, lacked a unifying idea or focal point. The decision to train the show’s spotlight on a subject whose only available interview material was recorded by someone not associated with the podcast directly — screenwriter Mark Boal, who interviewed Bergdahl for an upcoming Kathryn Bigelow movie — left this season without the possibility of the subject commenting on the podcast’s effect on the outside world as it was unfolding. And, purely looking at my personal tastes, I found it harder to be emotionally or intellectually commented to some of the political machinations that dominated the second half of the season, even as I found Bergdahl’s recollections of his captivity and the debates among fellow soldiers and government officials about the validity of his actions riveting.

If Serial were a fictional TV show, I’d say that it took a gamble on more cerebral, less immediately visceral subject matter this season than it did for its inaugural run. But it’s not a TV show — it’s a real-life reportorial investigation that seeks to convey information to its audience in an engaging format over a period of several months. On those metrics, the show triumphed in its second season, even as it endured the inevitable sophomore slump in media attention and encountered some logistical hurdles. Some viewers may have preferred last season’s offerings — but in journalism, audience preference isn’t the only consideration. Perhaps next season, the lowered expectations will actually serve the show well, allowing its creators to concentrate on the product rather than getting distracted by the public’s perceptions and expectations for the product.

If nothing else, this season gave us “That’s me, calling the Taliban.” I can’t imagine ending this piece with a better kicker than that. So I won’t try.

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