Serial: Hold All Comments ‘Til The End

Courtesy of Serial

Courtesy of Serial

Of course I listened. I listened obsessively, like basically everyone with a smartphone, the whole time fighting an urge to flood social network feeds with every possible thought that occurred to me about the most talked-about podcast ever.

I held extended comments until the end for two reasons: (1) I wanted to comment on the whole body of work. (2) I’m a member of the public media family, and this family has a bad habit of eating its own young prematurely — so I didn’t want to prematurely comment.

But it’s over now. So here goes:

Marketing. Serial is public media’s first inorganic success. It is the first public media product to succeed not because of the quality of its storytelling or its journalism — and it is generally-speaking quality journalism and quality storytelling — but because of the quality of its marketing. Dig past all the next-big-thing headlines and you’ll find signs of a choreographed launch: placement in Slate and industry media leading up to the release of its first episode on the already-successful (duh) This American Life. We forgave Serial its faults because it was already a cultural commodity — and this is where I found the Serial-to-House of Cards binge-watching analogy to be the most apt: we didn’t all follow every plot twist and detailed point of HOC, but we powered through anyway because everyone was watching.

Earned opinions. Serial was at its strongest when it earned opinions about a verifiable set of facts. I think it’s what made the show’s non-chronological-yet-chronological narrative structure work — and it’s what kept me coming back. For instance, “Route Talk” is my favorite episode. In it, Sarah Koening laid out all of the finer points of the cell phone records, piece by piece. Finally, when all of the evidence was on the table, producer Dana Chivvis comes in and essentially says, ‘I’ve gone over and over this, I know this evidence as well as anyone, and I think the most logical explanation is that Adnan’s phone was in Leakin Park.’ This show’s forward momentum came not from probing the inner emotions of an alleged killer, but from facts — from twisting what Koenig called “the Rubik’s cube of this case” through as many permutations as possible and highlighting the permutations that made the most sense. It’s what Mike Pesca calls an “earned opinion” — when a journalist knows a subject as well as anyone and has tried to see it from as many points of view as possible, sometimes the greatest service a journalist can offer is their perspective on seemingly inscrutable facts. It’s not a journalist telling you how she feels per se, but rather taking a body of evidence like a set of disorganized dots and showing the most logical way to connect them.

‘Eyes like a diary cow.’ Listeners deserved to know “The Deal,” so to speak, “With Jay,” with Adnan, with Hae; with any of the principals in this case. We deserved to hear Koenig’s admission that she cared about this case because was intrigued by Adnan — the “nice guy”-turned-(supposedly)-violent-killer. It’s an admission that produced the best Adnan-Sarah exchange of the podcast, at the end of Episode 6: “If I’m going to spend a year finding out he’s a nice guy, I might as well piss off.” But Serial was at its weakest — and most seriously troubling — when it tried to see past Adnan’s explicit motivations, past his brown “dairy cow” eyes and into his psychological state of mind. At best, it was boring. At worst, it felt like Koenig was just vamping, riffing off speculations about what was going through his 17-year-old head 15 years ago with psychologists who never met the guy. Episode 11 should’ve never aired; it’s title “Rumors” should’ve been a giveaway. I so desperately want to separate the Serial that picks apart the timeline of the state’s case, so meticulously lays out the just-as-damning evidence against Adnan, explores the biases that skewed his jury and ultimately leaves so many questioning whether our legal system actually works; from the Serial that ham-handedly explores the same questions Nancy Grace asks every night at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Race. In nearly every story I’ve ever covered, race has been a factor. Sometimes it’s far in the background, and mentioning it would make no logical sense. Sometimes it’s obviously a factor, and leaving it out would put an unaddressed elephant in the room. It’s a judgment call. Journalists deserve some deference in making it, even when we do find ourselves “stomping around” in communities we don’t know at first. If and when I make the wrong call one day, critics will be right to speak out — but I hope they’ll be more specific than Jay Caspian Kang’s dismissal of SerialI thought the whole of the facts and Koenig’s body of subsequent reporting didn’t support his argument. I don’t want to shut the door on the conversation about the intersections of race, culture and Serial, because I admit to cringing in a few places at how Koenig handled this moment or that — her conversation with Adnan’s mother in Episode 10 comes to mind. But Conor Friersdorf is so on the money here: “Critiques shouldn’t hinge on whether the journalist ‘feels like’ an interloper, or was disabused of ignorance in the reporting process.” And journalists who actually do go wrong on issues of race don’t need a bludgeoning. They need a clear explanation of what they did wrong and an understanding of how to do it right the next time.

Did he do it? As a juror, I also vote to acquit — but who knows. From Episode 12, I gather Koenig, Chivvis and fellow producer Julie Snyder worry like I do that no case could stand up to this scrutiny. They cite their private investigator as saying this case is not ordinary — it’s problematic in a way that isn’t normal for a criminal case like this. But on this score, too: who knows. I’m worried one of two things just happened: (1) We all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that, by its nature, lends equal weight to so many pieces of evidence in the case when really, there are some pieces of evidence that are more important than others — the fact that Jay did know where Hae’s car was, for instance; a view of Serial that ultimately suggests Adnan is guilty… or (2) we all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that was focused on all the wrong evidence because the right evidence was never collected (see: the end of Episode 12); a view of Serial that suggests Adnan is not guilty. And also suggests we all just basically sat around listening to a washing machine for two-and-a-half months expecting it to play Jingle Bells.

Structure. Serial played out like a paint-by-numbers picture: Episode 1 laid out all the basic outlines in black and white, and each successive episode has added a new shade of color to different slivers of the narrative. There’s obvious merit to this approach. I also can’t help but think of how Serial would sound different if it actually played out chronologically — not in the “we followed our reporting from the very beginning up to the present day” sense, but if the reporting team, say, began their podcast with Hae’s disappearance. Of course, this is just a thought exercise at this point, but I think there’s a case to be made here that the emulators who (as seems both right and inevitable) follow on Serial‘s success might actually try a more traditional beginning-middle-end structure with better narrative results.

The really tricky thing for emulators here is that Serial‘s greatest strength (see: ‘Marketing,’ above) obscures whether Serial truly worked as a narrative. It was so popular that Sarah Koenig could have gone on about what nail polish Hae was wearing and it would’ve been the most-listened-to 20 minutes of podcasting that’s ever existed.

Don’t mistake any above criticism for overall dislike: On the whole, I really did love Serial. On balance, the amazing outweighs the cringe-inducing. I really can’t wait for Season Two. I’ll listen with just as much devotion. I only hope through discussion of the podcast’s high-points and low-points, we purveyors of public media can learn the right lessons from Serial about the work we do and the work we will do.

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