Most of this originally appeared on my Facebook page, but it felt like it merited being a blog post, so here it is! If you’ve been following me on Twitter at all, you know I’ve been hooked on Serial, the podcast produced by This American Life. The podcast is unique in that it doesn’t present standalone story episodes, but instead provides a serialized (get it?) look at one story – the case of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend almost 16 years ago, when he was 17. Host Sarah Koenig brings listeners in on the investigation. The storytelling is decompressed and not linear – which is sometimes compelling and other times a little frustrating. But in short, we’re basically tagging along while Koenig and her team researches and reports on the case – so, with that in mind, there are some expected lulls and dead ends. I should note that while one of Serial’s claims to fame is its format, there’s at least one other podcast that does the narrative-season thing: Startup, but Alex Blumberg, which chronicles his journey creating a startup company. It’s not similar beyond that, but also worth a listen – though it does suffer from some of the same types of peaks and valleys.
Anyway, here’s my post – which was spurred by listening to the amazing Laura Lippman talk about Serial on BBC 1 Radio yesterday. I’ve trimmed the written-for-Twitter intro sentences and probably caught a few typos.
One of my favorite novelists, Laura Lippman, talked to BBC Radio 1 about the series – and her qualms with its approach to true crime writing (her segment starts around the 5m mark). Lippman, a Baltimore native and former crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, gives some great insight into the case and zooms out a bit to give some wonderful perspective. It’s very much worth a listen – I wish they hadn’t been so pressed for time because it seemed like there was a lot more to discuss.
I should preface this whole thing by saying I enjoyed Serial and have listened loyally every Thursday. I found the format compelling and enjoyed how listening to the story brought me closer to the narrative than reading words on paper.
But, having listened to the finale (no spoilers!), I have to agree with Laura – while the journey of Serial has been interesting and at times engaging, I can’t say I’d pick that over a more concise and clear analysis of what that journey discovered. I also think “enjoying the ride” puts me (and others more familiar with the true crime genre) in the minority, as I got the sense most listeners were expecting some kind of “season finale” TV show-style conclusion. I could be wrong.
I also don’t think the podcast itself is remarkably unique in the world of true crime, especially if – like Laura, myself and many others – you’ve read a lot of true crime books. I also couldn’t help getting a little defensive at the occasional article along the lines of “It’s OK to like true crime now that Serial’s here” as if reading the genre before was somehow graceless – or gauche, as Laura puts it. This wasn’t helped by Koenig’s passive dismissal of true crime every time she pointed out that being a crime show wasn’t the intent of Serial at first. Sarah, it’s OK to write about crime! That’s what you’re doing.
Laura also mentions The Staircase as a stronger example of serialized true crime reportage – which I think is true, though it also has some faults. It manages to deliver in a way that I don’t think Serial ever could, not for lack of trying, while dealing with similar circumstances.
Overall, like I said, I enjoyed the journey of Serial – I felt like we got to ride along with a talented, flawed and honest reporter as she explored a story that, from what I could tell, she thought was going to be easier than it was. I don’t, however, think that this style of covering or narrative execution is new to crime reporting or true crime writing – but that’s OK. We all like a good true crime story, right?