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Is SERIAL a Fluke?

I have no doubt about the greatness of Serial.

The overnight sensation podcast is more spellbinding than a lot of shows on TV — and that’s saying something considering how much good TV there is. But I worry that the show may have blown its load in its first season.

The success of Serial is pretty easy to understand. It combines This American Life’s well-honed storytelling technique with a great crime story — maybe a perfect story.

Americans love investigative police and courtroom dramas. These are probably the most common TV shows — we never tire of this genre. Everyone likes the opportunity to vicariously play a detective and a lawyer.

Dun Dunnnn….

And Serial’s crime story is particularly compelling because of its seeming banality. It’s not just that the people are real, but they are relatable. It doesn’t involve rich people, or celebrities, or just people with seemingly perfect lives.

With Serial it’s the American experience: middle class assimilated immigrants.

Serial‘s first season: Did Adnan Syed kill ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee?

Further, on Serial there’s actual investigation! Shows like CSI have largely taken the investigative fun out of crime dramas because so much of uncovering the truth comes down to finding a fiber at the crime scene and running a computer analysis. Talk about anticlimactic.

In Serial there’s no CSI magic wand that can be waived to uncover the truth (or so we know at this point), so our host Sarah Koenig has to track down witnesses, retrace the steps of the alleged killer on the day of the murder, and consult experts. And, so far as we know, she doesn’t hold back any details to ensure that there will be that twist in the third act.

Sarah Koenig, This American Life producer Ira Glass, and Serial co-executive producer Julie Snyder.
Photograph: Meredith Heuer/This American Life

Finally to cap all of this off, depending on what the investigation uncovers, it could turnout that the person convicted of the murder was wasn’t actually the killer. The only kind of crime story that’s more satisfying than one where the bad guy is caught and brought to justice is one where a miscarriage of justice is fixed.

So here’s the problem: Serial isn’t supposed to be a crime series.

The premise of the show is that it takes on a story that is way too big to tell in a single episode (of This American Life) — it’s simply a story told over multiple parts. And the show’s makers have said that even though they don’t know what Season 2 will be about, it probably won’t be another crime mystery.

I worry that the show has become defined as being a crime series. Most of the discussion about it by listeners is specifically focused on using the evidence gathered on the show and what people have found offline to solve the crime. It reminds me a lot of the fan discussion over True Detective.

The show is clearly going to be a victim of its own success to some degree. How many of these amateur detectives on reddit are going to tune into the Second Season once they realize it’s not a crime story?

And I wouldn’t quite blame the fans for their false expectations.

The show has never been very forceful about defining what it is. Its non-descript name certainly doesn’t help. Even though the reason it was named “serial” is obvious, it’s a poor reflection of the show’s scope and style.

Potentially more worrisome is that imitators will takeaway the wrong lessons.

The podcast distribution platform in its current format has been around for a decade, but there haven’t been any noteworthy podcast shows (I’m not including radio shows that release episodes as podcasts). Most shows tend to be news programs or interviews shows. I’m not aware of any being multi episodes narratives (fiction or non-fiction), and certainly none have had the production values of Serial.

As I’ve argued, Serial picked the right story, but those hoping to replicate its success should pay more attention to its ambition and storytelling aesthetic. Podcasting is a relatively inexpensive distribution method; most shows feel cheep, as if because it’s a free platform all the shows should have small budgets.

The lesson is that even though Serial is given away for free, it’s so polished that money could be charged for it.

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