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 phrase “mic drop” was invented for the last three minutes of HBO’s six-episode documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. For five episodes and most of the sixth, the New York real-estate magnate Durst spent the majority of his screentime reasserting his innocence in the three separate murder allegations that have been dogging him for more than a decade. Then the screen goes black, a title card explains that Bob is headed to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose.
Viewers watching The Jinx as it unspooled over six weeks last February and March got to see that moment without knowing what would happen. I didn’t have that luxury, as I didn’t start the series when it originally aired and then couldn’t avoid the barrage of spoilers and interview coverage in the days following the finale. Had I not known what was coming, I might have had nightmares about the final sequence. Even with the foreknowledge, the moment took my breath away.
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.
The world gives us lots to be cynical about every day. But today’s Thanksgiving, so I want to take a brief pause from frustration, indifference and indignation to marvel at the treasures on our massive pop culture landscape. Here’s a look at some of the pop culture (and pop culture criticism) that I’m thankful for right now: