Everyone is talking about “Serial,” the true-crime spinoff of “This American Life.” With just seven (as of today) episodes, the show is sitting comfortably atop the podcast charts on iTunes, and it seems you can’t swing a beard in Brooklyn or on Twitter without hitting someone who wants to dissect every aspect of the show so far. The story of Hae Min Lee’s murder is as mysterious as the killing of Laura Palmer, and Adnan Syed’s guilt is as hotly debated as the identity of the Yellow King was. Like Twin Peaks, True Detective, and other slow-building TV shows, “Serial” has developed such an intense following because it rewards close listening: It’s inspired internet sleuths to take to Reddit (or Twitter) to figure out the case, and Slate has devoted an entire “Spoiler Special” podcast to picking it apart. How has Sarah Koenig come to captivate audiences to such an extent that they sit by their podcast apps on Thursday mornings waiting for a new episode to drop? What makes “Serial” unique? Why are all so obsessed?
The Dark Side of Degrassi
Jobs at the mall, getting stoned, first heartbreaks, afternoons spent driving around, eccentric janitors: The details surrounding the case are all your super-standard parts of high school. Koenig’s reporting plays with a theme found in so many true-crime stories: Behind the banal, everyday drama of an episode of Degrassi or John Hughes film is the potential for something far more sinister. By stressing the everyday grinds of high-school life as the backdrop to the story of Lee’s murder, Koenig makes it easy for listeners to wonder if these events could have taken place at their own high schools. There’s a strong anti-sensationalism to everything that makes the case feel very immediate and relatable.
The truth is (maybe) out there?
No one in the “Serial” narrative feels all that reliable. There are 23 minutes on the afternoon of January 13, 1999 that no one adjacent to the murder can convincingly account for, and so far, “Serial” hasn’t presented some alternate theory that nails down a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt timeline, either. Syed was found guilty, and the only story we have to this point, from his sort-of friend Jay, constantly shifts. Koenig reinforces this ambiguity by frequently saying “I’m not sure” — not only about parts of the case but about the show in general. Koenig is on record saying that she doesn’t yet know where the facts will take her and how the story ends, and this has the effect of making every moment and revelation suspect. The show could end by proving Syed innocent. Or guilty. Or, in all likelihood, neither. This open-endedness could seem wishy-washy, but because Koenig is such a skilled storyteller, instead it’s gripping.
A killer soundtrack
Nick Thorburn’s excellent score is based on simple, brooding piano, synthesizer, and simple guitar melodies. (You can listen to it here.) Many of Thorburn’s pieces — “Adnan,” especially — are reminiscent of Angelo Badalementi’s iconic Twin Peaks score. The music adds a subtle cohesive element to the show. It’s also something of a rarity for a podcasts to get a soundtrack of their own; even “This American Life” recycles the same stock music on its episodes.
“Serial” is the anti-Dateline
The hyperbolized — and then quickly and satisfyingly solved — tabloid murder story has been done a million times. It’s the lifeblood of shows like Dateline. Watch any show on Investigation Discovery and it’s almost always obvious from the first minute who did it (hint: it was the husband). These tabloid shows promise viewers a couple of hours of tawdry details in a whodunnit format that always comes to a clear resolution. “Serial” utterly subverts that format, bringing a brand of level-headedness and decency to a genre characterized by gory sensationalism. Koenig shares scans of notes Syed wrote; Dana Chivvis posts wonky infographics about how cell-phone towers work on the “Serial” blog. When a salacious detail like the streaking janitor who found Lee’s body does enter into the story, Koenig bypasses tabloid sleaze entirely. Rather than shaming him as some sort of creep like Dateline almost certainly would, Koenig dismisses the janitor as a suspect and characterizes his forest romp for what it is: a quirky, somewhat sad detail of the larger case.
“Serial” sounds like podcasting’s next big thing
Podcasts tend to be episodic, focused on thematic rather than narrative exploration. Because it’s structured as a multi-part narrative, “Serial” is a real departure. Koenig has confirmed that there will be other seasons of “Serial,” and it will be interesting to see where she moves to from here. But equally exciting is the possibility that the success of “Serial” will lead to others pushing podcasting even further than Koenig already has. There’s plenty of long-form true-crime reporting out there; maybe it’s time to turn more of those pieces into podcasts.