As the winter winds blow through middle America, the uncharacteristic void of quality entertainment has made the short early winter days more brutal than usual. The glimmer of entertainment hope that is shining brightest is neither a television series or an epic Christopher Nolan picture, but rather a podcast from NPR’s Sarah Koenig, This American Life, and WBEZ Chicago.
That’s right. One of the best pieces of entertainment today is a podcast.
To say that Serial came out of nowhere may be an understatement. True, podcasting has been a viable form of media for the better part of this century; used to celebrate the minutiae of life or to give a more intimate and controllable feel to the long trusted form of talk radio. It’s been a revelation for people like Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick, who have parlayed their podcast success into larger endeavors.
But Serial is blazing a trail in the podcast world. Created and hosted by Sarah Koenig, it harkens back to the days when radio was in its infancy, a time when Orson Welles was telling stories over the airwaves while people gathered around to listen.
All while maintaining a very modern style of storytelling.
In the way the story is presented, the show isn’t drastically different from 48 Hours or Dateline. It’s (currently) the tale about Adnan Syed, a now 32-year-old man serving a life sentence in a maximum security facility in Maryland for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
The show is essentially a period piece, with the actual story taking place in 1999 when 18-year-old Adnan allegedly committed the crime that landed him in jail. In this way, Sarah Koenig presents a meticulous story that hinges on relics like payphones and video stores along with the testimony of shady witnesses and an at-the-time new technological advancement called a “cell phone.”
Each episode ranges from 30-60 minutes with a tease of the next week’s episode at the end, and it is the same story each week (hence the title). The format allows for an incredibly in-depth story that leaves the listener craving more at the end of each installment.
From an opening theme of cryptic piano music that suggests you should be listening in a large mansion beside a cackling fire to its air of mystery; Serial is an extensive game of Clue at it’s most fundamental, an ongoing odyssey with small hints dropped in amongst the ghosts of a time gone past.
Where Serial diverges from the admittedly run-of-the-mill true crime story is when it crosses over into the scrupulous, painstakingly precise details and ambiguity of real life justice. Of the nine episodes that have aired so far (new episodes are released every Thursday), the listener is left with a different opinion of Adnan’s guilt or innocent following each installment.
The gauntlet runs from “he’s totally innocent!” to “Total sociopath who is playing this reporter” to “I have absolutely no idea.” And that is where the brilliance lies. The constant second guessing of the details, and yourself, makes it feel more like True Detective than anything else. From a story perspective Serial has found middle ground between the unique space that a serialized television story (like True Detective) is allowed to work in; creating an epic tension while still maintaining that bit of nostalgia and primitive nature of mass media storytelling.
Sarah Koenig has already gone on record saying not to expect the story to wrap up in a nice little bow, because it probably won’t (sounds a lot like Rust Cohle’s “Unsolved World” soliloquy) and the truth probably died with Hae Min Lee.
Serial finds itself as not only one of the most well done pieces of media to be produced this year, but this era. A mix between old media nostalgia and new media noir; the now acclaimed podcast exists as a larger social allegory about the American justice system, the presumption of guilt and innocence and the fragile nature of human memory.
Not to mention, it’s filling a rather large void in entertainment these days.
(Featured image a composite courtesy of Serial)