Talking back to “Serial”

Serial Host Sarah Koenig
“Serial” Host Sarah Koenig

by Keidra Chaney

Of all of the podcasts to become a breakout cultural phenomenon, I did not expect Serial to be it. Not that it isn’t excellent, of course, but it is a podcast, and it’s essentially a radio documentary, which battles a persistent reputation of uncoolness. You don’t hear of people gathering around the water cooler or at the bar talking about the latest episode of The Moth, or Planet Money, and they are both excellent podcasts. The serialized storytelling format and the true crime angle — journalist/host Sarah Koenig investigates the 1999 murder of Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee — hits many pop culture pleasure points for audiences who binge watch Law and Order and obsess over True Detective. (And yes, I realize how creepy it is to use the term “pleasure point” to refer to people’s reaction to a show about a real-life murder, but I’m calling it like I see it.)

I’m actually surprised that I’m into the show as much as I am; true crime is not my thing. (I come from a Law and Order family; seriously, my mother can identify a Law and Order Episode 15 seconds into watching it, and my sister isn’t far behind. I, on the other hand, will leave the room.) But, as someone who enjoys literary non-fiction, I’ve been drawn into the unusual reporting/storytelling angle that Sarah Koenig and company used with Serial. It is different from what we’re used to, even different from the one-shot or multi-part stories we’ve come accustomed to with its parent show, This American Life, and the fact that Koenig herself admitted that she had no clue where the story would end intrigued me. To essentially admit that you were following a story that could potentially lead nowhere, and for an undetermined length of time, seemed like a gutsy move for a storyteller, and I was content with going along for the ride.

Interestingly, Koenig’s open-ended approach seemed to be the spark to Serial’s obsessive super-fandom. I have lost count of the number of think pieces, blogs, recap podcasts, and tacky corporate social media posts that have sprouted like mushrooms since Serial’s premiere in October. The concept of a podcast about a podcast boggles my mind, and yet I know there are at least two, possibly more. And of course, there’s a whole Reddit community, possibly more, that devotes their time to amateur sleuthing and attempting to fill in any actual or perceived holes in Sarah Koenig’s reporting and storytelling. It’s all been fascinating to me, as I have followed little of it, save a couple of essays here and there. Outside of say, Lost, a decade ago, I’ve not seen such an all-consuming, collective desire to guide the story of a show, and I’m still not really sure where that desire is coming from. A number of articles have talked about the trend of fans of the show locating and tracking those individuals involved in the case. A Guardian article where I first noticed  this phenomenon referenced a Reddit mod who said of the show: “I feel responsible for some early breaches of privacy because of natural curiosity to fill in the holes that Sarah Koenig intentionally leaves in the podcast.”

When I first read this, it troubled and somewhat angered me. What on earth would compel someone to essentially insert themselves into a real-life case in this way? Why are so many Serial listeners so eager to “solve” this case, or seek resolution for themselves at the expense of the real people affected by the murder. Are audiences so accustomed to customized, social-mediated experiences that we can’t bear to listen to a story without being the story in some way?

After talking to-Serial loving friends and acquaintances (and seeing the explosion of articles, parodies, and communities that have emerged from the show) I soon realized that this audience self-insertion, this “talking back” to Serial, actually seems to be norm rather than the exception. It’s quite possibly the core element of the show’s popularity. The ambiguity of the story has served as something of a tacit invitation to listeners to play detective themselves, doling out bits of information each week, withholding others, and telling us so. The podcast’s website takes things a bit further, providing maps and court documents about the case for listeners to peruse. Certainly, though, this has evolved into a level of interactivity that even the producers probably did not anticipate.

On one level, it makes  sense to let the audience take selected bits of information and run with it, since it’s pretty obvious that there probably won’t be a “smoking gun” moment at the podcast’s finale. We’re likely not to hear a dramatic confession from Adnan, or Jay or any of major players in this case we’ve heard from in the past weeks. Koenig has increasingly made it clear that there was likely to be a unresolved end to the story, and that resolution was never guaranteed. And yet, as an audience, we still push for it, and attempt to create it, because we need it.

At the same time, these are real people, not characters, and the lives of these people have been disrupted by the show and the newfound interest of strangers. The penultimate episode confronted the impact that the public’s fascination with Serial has had on Adnan. Regardless of whether you think he committed the murder or not, it was clear that he had found some level of normalcy while behind bars; the podcast disrupted all of that. And we haven’t heard from Jay or Hae’s family, who have surely all been impacted by the exposure of this case. We have heard from Adnan’s family, and it is as expected; the attention has surely reopened old wounds and caused real pain. And yet, many of us have found entertainment in the exploration of the story, or are at least enthralled by it.

A couple of days ago, I filled out a survey about Serial and listening/participation habits conducted by a scholar at Middlebury College. (it’s no longer open) I’m curious to see what comes of it. Many of us are coming into Serial with different expectations as listeners, wanting different things from it. I’d love to read more why this podcast in particular struck a nerve with so many.

In the final hours before the finale is revealed, I’ve seen a lot of predictions and speculation about what listeners expect from the finale of Serial. I honestly have none, but I do have a prediction for Season 2, since we know we are getting one. I have a feeling that Serial will change course completely, and it won’t be a true crime story. It will be interesting to see if the audience will change, or will eagerly come along for a new ride.

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