The Serial phenomenon signals the arrival of the blockbuster podcast

Whatever happened to Nancy Drew? Remember that plucky teen detective who cruised around in a blue convertible, stuck her nose into other people’s business and in between being tied up and occasionally chloroformed — such is the life of an amateur sleuth — foiled the dastardly plans of two-bit crooks with names like Stumpy Dowd and Benny the Slippery One Caputti?

OK, so we know what happened to the literary franchise that whooshed her into school libraries and into the bedrooms of pimple-spattered teenagers. Rights holders stretched Nancy’s adventures out so long the original incarnation of her character would not just be elderly by the most recent instalment but dead and decomposed; old books were reissued with the racist bits taken out; critics debated the extent to which Nancy embodies or contradicts notions of feminine identity.

But let’s say Nancy was a real person, now all grown up. Maybe she dated one of the Hardy brothers and it didn’t work out. Maybe she got into podcasting. Maybe, unsatisfied with a police investigation and a court conviction for a 15-year-old murder case that received little media attention that piqued her interest, she went sniffing around and launched her own program to set the record straight. Let’s say it went viral.

Maybe it would look — or as the case may be, sound — something like 45-year-old journalist Sarah Koenig’s addictive-as-crack true crime podcast Serial, an in depth investigation of a 1999 case involving the murder of 17-year-old Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Lee went missing in 1999. Her body was found a few weeks later and Syed was sentenced to life plus 30 years despite no forensic evidence. He was found guilty largely due to the testimony of a classmate, Jay, who swears black and blue he helped dig the grave.

Long form content delivered in small portions is the new black. Binge watching is very much A Thing. Kevin Spacey’s rib munching, dog murdering House of Cards politician became the movement’s ambassador when Netflix broke the rules by unloading the show in one big hit, inadvertently creating an epidemic of sleep deprivation, eyestrain, deep bone thrombosis and a worldwide spate of work sickies.

Now Serial presses the play button on binge listening. Perhaps, with it, the first wave of full-scale blockbuster podcasts. According to Apple, Koenig’s whodunit (a spin-off of the rather excellent This American Life) quickly became the most popular podcast in the world and the fastest to reach five million downloads and streams in iTunes history. In addition to being the most popular in the US, the podcast is at the top of the list in Australia, Canada and the UK and in the top ten in South Africa, India and Germany.

There are meta-ish podcasts devoted to discussing the podcast itself (such as The Serial Serial, from The AV Club). Geeks are gaga for it on Reddit, the internet’s mainline to the central nervous system of online zeitgeist. While Serial is an immediate hit — any daily user on Twitter hasn’t been able to avoid hearing about it and you’ve probably seen it pop up in your Facebook news feeds too — it will also be a sleeper success. More and more people will hear of it as its audience crosses over from devoted or casual podcast listeners to occasionals and podcast virgins.

The show is very well made and the everything-in-the-open methodology of its presenter so instantly compelling it’s something mum and dad, pappa and nana could get into (perhaps it reminds them of old school radio serials). Serial may be massively popular ep by ep, but most listeners will arrive to it whiffing the air in the manner of “what’s all this fuss about” — meaning most will start listening well after the first episode.

When first timers get to the website, they’ll be told the show is a linear narrative intended to be listened to sequentially. They’ll be reminded during actual episodes. “We’re at episode two,” Koenig says at the start of the second instalment. “You probably heard episode one on This American Life or through our website serial podcast.org. But if you haven’t, stop! Go back to the beginning. We’re telling this story in order.”

So what is the story? It would be churlish to reveal much, because the show is hooked on small revelations. Sarah ‘just didn’t buy’ the motive the prosecution successfully put to the jury: that Adnan Syed was a furious ex-beau hell bent on murderous revenge. By all accounts, he and the victim remained good pals post-break up.

Koenig stresses that her lack of belief in the state’s motive argument is not proof that Syed didn’t do it, but it does compel her to get her Nancy Drew game on. She and a small team pore over court records, consult experts, interview various associated parties, have extensive conversations with Syed himself (via telephone from prison) and re-enact scenarios to see if they were plausible in terms of timelines and locations.

Koenig stops and starts the story, releasing and yanking tension strings with a deftness that understands the nature of the format and the need for audiences to return. Describing a phone call in the fifth episode, Koenig says “This (phone) call is incredibly important and I will talk more about it in another episode, I swear. But for now, what you need to know is…”. Similar morsels of ‘coming-up-next, but here’s something right now’ tune-in messages are strewn throughout.

Serial is the cut-through podcast fans of the medium have been waiting for: a curly crime story that epitomises the difference between full-scale productions (journalists, researchers, producers, a composer) and recorded-in-the-lounge-room gabfests. With a dense structure and a conga line of small but important details, it’s hard to second screen, because it’s easy to miss things — which makes it a pain in the arse, in the best possible way, to multitask.

There are also ethical concerns. Even by creating a show predicated on the idea a convicted person is very possibly not guilty, the documentarians are by definition also implying other parties (and almost every murder case is committed by somebody the victim knows, which means the pool of likely culprits is very small) perhaps are guilty of things they may never have been officially accused of.

No doubt plenty of Serial listeners — in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions — view Jay, the other main player in the story, with suspicion. Reddit obsessives might be knocking on his door right now. And because the show is a big success, a hit to the extent virtually nobody would have predicted, this arguably encourages the creators to make more episodes (with so much interest, why stop at 10 or 12?) and to finish the story by whatever means necessary.

If Serial results in Koenig pointing the finger, or implying guilt, which (without spoiling anything) it arguably already has, the podcast crosses over into dubious moral waters. Part two of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentary film trilogy, which followed the case of the West Memphis Three (released in 2000 while the trio, now free, were still in jail), clearly suggested a father of one of the murdered kids –- John Mark Byers -– was very likely guilty, or at least an overlooked prime suspect. Berlinger was proven innocent beyond doubt, but he sure seemed crazy, revisiting the site of the murders, setting the grass on fire and chanting all sorts of weird shit.

The filmmakers might deny they explicitly accused that specific person of a crime, but the implication is clear as day. It goes to show that when you’re in deep and complicated waters involving horrible crimes and all manner of conflicting accounts and finger pointing, even including somebody in your documentary can have ramifications on the lives of themselves and others.

Sarah Koenig is in that space now. The whole world is watching — well, listening — as Serial tries to find closure. In a Nancy Drew-esqe universe, the guilty party, once fingered, might respond with a line like “And I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.”  Reality, as the show points out, is a little more complicated.

EPISODE ONE

7 responses to “The Serial phenomenon signals the arrival of the blockbuster podcast

  1. “Berlinger was proven innocent beyond doubt” – I’m pretty sure that Berlinger was never under suspicion, given that he was one of the filmmakers.

  2. great sum up luke. my husband and i are constantly asking ourselves “why is this so good?” and “despite best intentions, is this doing harm”. you encapsulate all that here.

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