04 March 2016

Serial: From Mystery to Muddle

I listen to a few different podcasts, all put out by NPR or broadcast on NPR stations (Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!, Radiolab, On the Media), so it was perhaps natural that when the murder-mystery podcast Serial aired during October through December 2014, literally everyone was asking me if I'd heard it.

I hadn't. I can scarcely stay on top of the podcasts I do listen to in addition to the copious amount of Big Finish audio drams on my iPod. But I added it to my list, and finally listened to it this past summer, around six months after the whole thing had come to an end. But I felt like I'd missed out on something, so I resolved that whenever Season Two came along, I'd set all my other podcasts aside and listen to only this one.

The end result of this is that I've gone from being the only person not listening to Serial to the only person who is.

I can see why people who were into Serial Season One, especially those who listened as it came out, are less into Season Two. Serial has a very meandering narrative structure, with a lot of side facts and dead ends that go nowhere, facts that turn out to not be relevant. But Serial Season One was about a murder, while Season Two is about someone's motivation for defecting during the War in Afghanistan. In Season One, all of those dead ends felt like they might not be dead ends. The convention of the murder mystery genre to which Season One belonged (perhaps inadvertently) is that small things can surprisingly become hugely relevant. This turned out to not really be the case in Serial, as the series ended pretty inconclusively, but at the time you first hear it, you don't know that. Small "characters" could turn out to be important players for all you knew; a guy's story about something someone told him in high school could have in theory cracked the whole case.

My main takeaway from doing a Google Image search for "serial podcast" just now is that producer Dana Chivvis (on the far left) looks a lot cooler than you'd imagine someone who gets excited about cell phone records and fantasizes about analyzing them for the FBI would.
In Season Two, the mystery-- such as it is-- is mostly one of motivation. Why did Bowe Bergdahl walk off a military base and end up captured by the Taliban? But this means that all those side diversions don't have the same level of narrative energy they did in Season One. Though I've really been enjoying its examination of the problems of the War in Afghanistan, you pretty much know that talking to people who never even met Bowe isn't going to answer the outstanding questions. And indeed, the outstanding questions aren't all that outstanding. As of Episode Six (I've heard up through Eight, and Nine just came out on Thursday), it seems like the issue of Bowe's motivations are pretty well sewn up. I'm continuing to listen because I think the failures of the U.S.'s mission in Afghanistan are pretty interesting, and Sarah Koenig's analysis of Bowe as a person has been very thorough and sympathetic as well, but I'm not left wondering about anything. There's nothing specific I still want to know.

In some ways, I don't think this is the fault of Koenig and company. I've been enjoying Season Two just as much as Season One-- but that's probably because I didn't listen to Season One live, so I had a pretty strong suspicion that it ended inconclusively, as I hadn't seen or heard anyone say anything definitive in the months since. So my expectations weren't for a murder mystery with a clear solution, but for a thorough explanation of a muddled situation, which is what Season Two has given us as well. Serial Season Two is very much the "difficult second album" for a team that's become victim to their own success, but considered outside the context of how popular Season One became (how many public radio podcasts get parodied on SNL?), I think it's still one of the better podcasts on the Internet today.

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