Serial is the most listened to podcast in the world right now. A spin off of This American Life, it follows Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. The case focused on Hae’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed who was ultimately convicted based on the testimony of his supposed best friend, Jay, who was also an accessory to the crime.
The show is a runaway hit.
Often not for the right reasons.
Let’s take a look at the fascinating first. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of the investigation as Koenig and her team delve further into the complexities of the case. There’s plenty to find too, from the questionable tactical decisions made by Adnan’s attorney to the mercurial nature of Jay’s testimony to the layout of Baltimore itself. A format like this allows them to explode the case and examine each section in turn and it’s sometimes the sort of in depth reporting that only podcasting can allow. One voice, one story, pulling it apart one step at a time. It’s utterly compelling, chilling listening and it’s a format that will only grow more adaptable and focused with each successive season.
But it’s also a show, and built like a show. And that’s where the problems start.
Firstly because the entire thing is configured to hit every single media consumption response Pavlov wishes he could have taught his dogs. Every episode opens with a ‘previously’ (Which, being audio, is little more than barely meaningful clips), each episode closes with a sign off that trails what’s coming next and each episode is punctuated by the most paradoxically whimsical theme music a true crime journalism show could ever have hoped for.
Now, let’s talk about media bingeing. This is a practice that started with DVD sets and has been riveted into the global consciousness by Netflix. You can sit down, press play, and 12 episodes later have all of a season of Breaking Bad, House of Cards or The Wire dropped into your frontal lobe. All you have to do is remember to get up and go to the loo every now and again.
Here’s what the Serial website has to say about binge-listening:
We’ve been getting lots of questions about why we’re only releasing one episode per week instead of the entire season all at once for those of you inclined to binge-listen. The reason is: We’re still making them. As I write this, in fact, Sarah is re-writing Episode 5.
I guess you could say we didn’t get all our work done ahead of time. We’re reporting this story as we write it. We’re still pinning down information, doing interviews, following leads. So when you listen each week, the truth is that you’re actually not all that far behind us.
This troubles me three different ways. Firstly, the simple fact that people want to binge listen to an in depth exploration of a tragic, violent, real murder makes me very uncomfortable. This isn’t True Detective it’s just true and turning the same frantic fan speculation on an actual case in which a real person was murdered feels tawdry. Secondly, this is hitching factual journalism to both the narrative model and audience expectation of fiction. That’s at best risky and at worst deeply irresponsible.
Thirdly, the folksy ‘I guess you could say we didn’t get all our work done ahead of time’ is exactly the tone a lot of the story is presented in. The very first episode offhandedly describes someone as being ‘loosey goosey’ with the truth for example. On the one hand it’s exactly the sort of informal, narrative language that makes the show so engrossing. On the other, a high school student is dead.
That issue really comes to the fore with episode 8 and a moment of such bewildering bad judgment it’s difficult to believe what you’re hearing. Jay, the chief witness, accessory to the murder and truth sculptor, is the focus of the episode and, finally, Koenig and her producer decide to go out to interview him,
They don’t tell him first.
That’s, in some ways, understandable and while doorstepping your subject is about as belligerent as you can get, it’s also frequently done. That’s not an excuse but it is context.
So, they go to his house, find he’s not there, wait a few hours, try again, interview him and…
He declines to be recorded.
So the middle chunk of the episode is the drive out to the house, bridging narration and audio from the drive back.
And that’s it.
This is bad journalism, bad radio and bad narrative. It’s tantamount to cutting a crucial lead out of All The President’s Men or the famous profanity deduction scene from The Wire. The whole point of the episode is reduced to a figure glimpsed in the distance, as mercurial as the statements he constantly changed. It’s hard for the more cynical side of me to not think that may be the point but what’s far more likely is that it’s symptomatic of my biggest problem with the show. This line from the website:
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
By clothing a real life tragedy in the wardrobe of fiction, Serial fixates on the journey and the illusion of closure. The ‘story’ will end, the listeners will wait for the next season and the next cast of characters but Hae Min Lee will still be dead and no amount of chatty editorializing, bizarrely inappropriate music or narrative playfulness will change that.