After Serial, you are most definitely not alone with your podcast

I was waiting at a mall to meet someone I’ve been talking to online for a few weeks before. We were to have lunch at this chicken place she wanted to try, and see where the conversation would bring us. But there was the first few hurdles, of me going to the mall, parking my car, and setting a meeting place. All that time I was by myself, I was listening to the first two episodes of Serial, which was just released the day before.

Eleven weeks later, I have just finished the final episode of the podcast’s first season. Sarah Koenig has, in a definitively round-about way, answered what she thinks of the murder of Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago, as to whether Adnan Syed, who’s serving a life sentence for allegedly committing the crime, was really behind it. The first thing I did was go on Facebook and post this “open thread”, tagging three friends who also listen to the podcast. The second thing was to write this.

I never thought much of Serial when it first began. I’ve been listening to This American Life for six years when news of a spinoff podcast starring one of that show’s most known producers began going around. I simply took it for what it is: the new podcast will essentially be one TAL story stretched over weeks, allowing every nook and cranny to be explored. It’s not that they need it – TAL has made an art of compressing an intricate subject into an hour-long episode – but there are just cases when you need to go deeper. An early example, arguably, is TAL‘s two-parter on the fortunes of Harper High School, located in a Chicago neighborhood that’s hit hard by gang violence. (Part one. Part two.)

There’s also the seeming resurgence of the serial narrative. Sure, it’s never really gone away, with books and soap operas flying the flag, but primetime television’s been creeping back towards one-story-told-weekly in the early part of the millennium, and movies have sort of followed its path, too. Serial was described, before its premiere, as a mix of This American Life‘s journalism and True Detective‘s format, which sounds simple enough. And conveniently, the first season would revolve around a crime that’s not exactly been definitively solved.

And that was it. Suddenly – I never quite knew why – Serial was a pop culture phenomenon. “It’s the Internet’s fault,” you might say, and I might agree, once armchair detectives took to Reddit to, um, supplement Koenig’s retelling of the circumstances around Hae’s disappearance and death, and around Adnan’s arrest and conviction. Suddenly there was talk of how we are all dealing with human lives here, of how Koenig took an actual death for her benefit, of how Serial‘s first season is really more than just a true crime story. The discussion was hard to track, but suddenly I was not alone with a podcast. I was listening in with everyone. I’m used to this with television shows (and I say this as a former TV critic, sort of) but not with podcasts, what with the intimate nature of audio entertainment, and specifically podcasts, because you bring them to your commute, earphones plugged in, you completely shut off from the crowds, immersed in whatever’s being said.

What made this weirder was that, suddenly, the impression was that Koenig set out to solve, once and for all, Hae’s murder. Did Adnan kill her? Did Jay? I’m pretty sure she didn’t set out to do that. She didn’t say that at all. The first episode opened with a tangent on how reliable people’s memories are. That, to me, set the stage for what this season of Serial is really about: how what you think you see, or what you believe you see, can affect more people than you think. It is a compellingly told story – Sarah’s done this many times on TAL – but suddenly all these strangers come in and expect her to have answers. At the end of this week’s installment, she says she doesn’t – but she has thoughts, and those thoughts are just as good as anyone’s.

I think that was the ending the Serial gang had in mind from the beginning, but the podcast’s real time nature – of how they were writing and editing episodes on the fly to account for newly-surfaced information – and the expectation, perhaps need, for answers to be definitively given, has affected how we perceive it. Some are bound to be disappointed that Koenig wasn’t as conclusive; some will just read between the lines and react however they see fit. I ended the episode going, “well, that was a good ending; that was a good story.” It might have been a bit too long-winded, partly, I think, because of what listeners expected it to do, but it was a good story. Serial set out to be, simply, one story told week by week, and I think it did that well: it was engaging and human, it took its time, it didn’t jump to rabid speculation, and it stuck to its initial premise… mostly, at least.

Maybe it could be better, but maybe it’s just me reacting to all the reaction. Is Serial a victim of its own success? Perhaps. But that happens to every success. It’s what happened to The Sopranos‘ controversial ending. It’s what happened to Lost relyig more on its mythology as the seasons went by. But in its ambition, it does admirably, and in Serial‘s case, it definitively put podcasting firmly in the mainstream. Sure, it’s always been there, whether it be shows already airing on the radio or those exclusive to the Internet, but they were mostly niche affairs enjoyed by those who are predisposed to do so. In twelve episodes spread over eleven weeks, Serial captured the imagination and showed the way.

I’m pretty sure that future conversations about podcasts that I’ll be involved in will no longer just be me recommending Answer Me This! to a friend. I am no longer alone with my podcast. I am with a lot more. [NB]

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