So much for a happy ending, or a clear ending at all. Yesterday, the first season of Serial, a wildly popular podcast that re-evaluated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed over a 12-week season, came to a close. Listeners hoping for a conclusive ending wrapped in a tight bow were disappointed, but they were also harboring unrealistic expectations. The show was presented and played out as an exploratory exercise. Creator Sarah Koenig was unsure how the story would unfold when she first started. Expecting a neat resolution was simply unrealistic. Instead, die-hard Serial fans will have to check back to see if an attempt to pin the murder on a now deceased serial killer through DNA testing will pan out.
Despite the lack of clear resolution, here are three reasons why the first season worked and what they could do next season to keep things interesting.
1. Hazy High School Memories
The first season of Serial started organically when a friend of Syed’s asked Koenig to take another look at the facts surrounding Syed’s trial. Koenig, the friend insisted, was sure to come to the same conclusion that she had: Syed was wrongfully convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Lee in January 1999, while the two were students at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County. It didn’t take Koenig long to identity that the prosecution’s version of the murder was highly problematic. To make matters worse, their star witness was a documented liar, who despite claiming to help bury Lee’s body, walked away with no jail time, while Syed was given a life sentence.
The ensuing narrative plays out as a high-emotion, high school drama, laced heavily with weed and hazy memories. Koenig and her producers spent what must have been countless hours listening to courtroom audio, reviewing court documents, highlighting phone records, reenacting the prosecution’s version of the murder and interviewing friends of Lee and Syed. Season one often felt like a voyeur’s view into a support group for a cohort of young adults trying to make sense of a murder that upended their young lives. Lee’s murder reminds listeners of tragedies faced in their own youth—friends or family members lost suddenly and unexpectedly, and the ensuing disarray.
2. Breaking the Podcast Mold
The show enjoyed a wave of viral popularity as it debuted as No. 1 on iTunes and has held that position for much of the first season. Its success is due in large part to its ability to stray from the aimless format of many mainstream podcasts. Serial’s calculated and exhaustive storytelling contrasts shows that essentially put two or three people in the same room behind a microphone as they talk about relevant news stories, recent events etc. and hope for the best.
Serial feels like a well-written, multi-part news article on a subject that never grows tiresome. At times during the first season, Koenig seems to be just compiling details, and it’s easy to get lost. But she ultimately pulls it all together in the final episode. Even without a clear conclusion, the listener is provided a recap of the story’s most salient points. Any fan of This American Life would notice the similar style that Serial employed. The difference was that Serial took 12 weeks to tell one story, while This American Life typically has three stories per one-hour episode. The added time allowed for a greater depth of analysis and character development. It is surprising that this has not been more widely used, or popularized by someone else to this point.
3. A Charming Convict
Throughout the course of season one, Koenig provided ample airtime to Syed. She plays snippets of their numerous phone conversations while he is an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Facility. Syed generally presents as charming, thoughtful, and seemingly at peace with what he says is a wrongful conviction. Koenig describes feeling the same internal strife as the listener. She struggles with the decision to take the now pious Syed at face value, or to continue to look for inconsistencies in his story.
In the end, the door is left slightly open as to whether Syed is a man at peace, or a glib psychopath able to masterfully hide his dark side while secretly manipulating and deceiving those around him. She leans towards the former because there is no credible evidence to suggest Syed has psychopathic tendencies. In the end, Syed is a fascinating character either way. Koenig will be lucky to find a person to study in season two that is as eloquent or dynamic.
Where Could They Take Season Two? Should they come to Boston?
The stated purpose of Serial is simple and vague: it aims to follow one true story wherever it goes, over the course of a season. Perhaps Koenig chose this broad mission statement because she anticipated the success of the first season and wanted room for a new direction in the future. As a Baltimore native, she may opt for another story in that area. but what if Serial came to Boston? What would be the best stories from around here?
Given the broad scope, it is questionable whether Koenig and crew will decide to pursue another murder case, but if they did, Boston would be an ideal place. They could take a new approach by evaluating cases that have never been solved, rather than one that has already gone to trial. Between 2004-2013, over three hundred murders went unsolved in Boston. That accounted for roughly 50% of the total murders, a higher percentage than the national average. This massive pool of open cases would provide endless fodder for Koenig’s team to dig in and try to find new details. Could they possibly dive into the South End murder for which Aaron Hernandez has been implicated? It doesn’t seem like Koenig’s style, but it could be wildly captivating to hear the Serial crew pour over the details.
Part of what made the first season work was that listeners were not familiar with the details of the Syed case. With that in mind, it is likely that the Serial team is looking for a story that has received little or no major media attention. Right now they are probably being peppered with suggestions for topics in the second season.
We’d like to hear your thoughts on which Boston stories would be best. Let us know about the case that’s been plaguing you for years that would benefit from a fresh look, from a detailed crew. You never know, it could end up as the topic for season 2 of Serial.
[Image Courtesy of Serial]