In the off-chance you’re not already listening to the podcast Serial, this is a PSA: you should start. Not only is the weekly series a gripping true-crime mystery, it’s showing that podcasts can be appointment-listening in a way previously reserved for television.
For the uninitiated, Serial is a spinoff from WBEZ, the makers of This American Life, but instead of focusing on a single theme each episode, each episode takes you deeper into a single story — in this case, the murder of a high-school senior in Maryland 15 years ago. It gets compared to True Detective a lot, which is fair in that they're both about old murder cases and have attracted feverish fanbases determined to solve riddles before the conclusion. But True Detective is all about good versus secret, mystical evil, whereas Serial is about a real murder in a painfully ordinary world, full of mundane and possibly meaningless details. Its drama comes from Koenig's meticulous examination of all these bits of evidence, the fear that the truth may ultimately be unknowable, and the chance that her conclusion could change a real person's life.
It’s a radio drama for the mobile era, and it’s showing that people will listen to long, thoroughly investigated stories in podcast form: the show has been at the top of the iTunes chart since it launched and now has a million listeners per episode.
It’s a radio drama for the mobile era
We’ve collected some of the best writing on Serial and a few fan sites to follow once you’re hooked. But first, a bit more background and exhortation.
Serial is hosted by the journalist Sarah Koenig and follows her as she tries to figure out whether Adnan Syed killed his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a crime he is now serving a life sentence for. Or as Koening says it in the first episode, "For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high-school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999." Koenig was tipped off to the case by Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s, who believed Syed’s defense attorney botched the case and asked Koenig to look into it.
As she digs, Koenig finds dubious witnesses, ambiguous evidence, and a justice system that seems to have taken a disturbingly cursory approach to locking someone away for the rest of his life. Koenig says she’s still reporting and doesn’t know how the series will end — with Syed’s innocence, his guilt, or somewhere in the murky area in between. It may not matter for the show. What makes Serial great is its attention to the way memory shifts over time and facts transform when seen in a different light. It’s somehow managed to make a show about the way reality resists narrative into a totally riveting narrative with cliffhanger endings.
For further reading, here are some of the best stories and fansites about Serial.
The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson about the making of Serial.
New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose on Serial and the podcast renaissance.
The Vulture interview where Sarah Koenig says she doesn’t know how it will end.
NPR’s Linda Holmes on Serial’s up-in-the-air ending.
Nieman on storytelling and structure.
The economics of advertising on podcasts, which you can think about as you listen to that girl fail to pronounce "mail chimp" again and again.
And a DailyDot writeup of some of the theories on it.
Slate has a Spoiler Special podcast about the show, if you want listen to a podcast about a podcast.
Serial’s own website is full of interactive maps, timelines, and photographs of pieces of evidence discussed in the show.
Split The Moon is the blog of Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who brought Adnan’s case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.