Thoughts on Serial

Serial Podcast Artwork

12/04/2014 Update: This post is as close to needing a retraction as possible. I could've sworn that in episode 9 (before the Thanksgiving hiatus of the show) that Sarah Koenig said that episode 10 was the last episode. Coupling that with the fact that I'd just looked at the Serial website while working on this post and thinking that the episode section of the site had listed 10 episodes with a blurred image for unaired episodes all along and I was sure that the show was coming to a close with what felt like a biased story at the 90% mark. Knowing now that Serial will continue into episode 11 (and beyond?) refashions this post into a snapshot of the thoughts I had at the time with said expectations of the show ending at episode 10, albeit a misconstrued piece of writing at best. Please accept my apologies for the mistake.

As a long time listener of This American Life I was excited when I heard that the same team would be working on a new show that told an overarching story week by week. Since its release, Serial has been a success and seems to only continue it's trajectory in bringing in new listeners . What makes this interesting is that Serial isn't available as a radio show like TAL is. Serial is currently only available as a podcast or via online streaming. There has been a substantial amount of ink (and pixels) spilled over the popularity of the show and how it's part of what's bringing mainstream attention to podcasting as a medium. While I'm sure that Serial is spreading awareness about podcasts as an alternative to traditional radio I don't know that I buy that it's going to be the tipping point for the medium. I do believe that Serial is adding to the continual evolution of our expectations for accessing media in a way that conforms to our schedules and whatever devices we want to access it from.

In case you haven't listened to the show, here's the elevator pitch from the Serial website:

Serial is a new podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial will follow one story - a true story - over the course of a whole season. We'll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we'll bring you the latest chapter, so it's important to listen in order, starting with Episode 1.

I would recommend avoiding the rest of this post if you haven't yet listened to Serial in order to keep the experience pure. While there aren't any true spoilers to follow, there are themes of the show that I'll be diving into that are best avoided until you've listened to the show yourself.

While I'm glad to see the show thriving, I am torn about where Serial is going and what the intent for its outcome is. Despite often being marketted as transparent journalism about the case of Hae Lee's murder we're often found bouncing back and forth between Sarah Koenig's opinions based on the evidence. While you can find honesty in the reporting, I still find myself wondering how much of the final product is radio theater directing the show in a manner that's not as real time as we're expected to believe it's being recorded. At best I feel confident that there is a story that was thoroughly vetted for it's viability to carry an entire 10 hours of content. My concern is that this vetting lead to preemptive notions of what story was to be told. From the outset I've felt that Serial has firmly positioned Adnon as our protagonist with the possibility of there being a Dr. Jekyll side to him that we're all missing. If we're talking about transparent journalism, this immediately negates my trust. While you can often hear Sarah's own struggle with the "did he?/didn't he?" quandry, it often feels palpably forced. I don't find myself believing that Sarah herself struggles over what she believes. She continually seems to come back to believing in Adnon as a good guy and that the idea that he actually committed this crime is pretty unlikely. I somewhat expect episode 10 to bring us to the similar realization many had in the final season of Breaking Bad and realize that the story was more about Jay the whole time and that Adnon has been the Hank to Jay's Walt all along. What's worse is that I find myself expecting a conclusion that's not satisfying and leaves us in the same place that we started this story; unsure of who actually committed the murder.

With one episode left it feels like we're either going to get a densely packed amount of information that has, thus far, been witheld in order to tell the story in the way that the producers felt was best. While it may be a good way to tell a more entertaining story I find myself holding the show to the standard that this is non-fiction and re-arranging the details of the reporting are commensurate with tampering with evidence. It's misleading and wrong. All of this makes it sound like I don't enjoy Serial but that's far from the case. I wouldn't be able to spend the brain cycles debating my conspiracy theory about the show if I didn't enjoy it. While I have my reservations about how kosher the integrity of the story we're being told is I still recommend that you listen to Serial and come to your own conclusions.