“Serial” moves away from exploring extraordinary cases

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“SERIAL” is to podcasts what “Game of Thrones” is to television. The release of new episodes is a much-anticipated event; fans binge on it, dissecting clues and offering theories. The first season, released in 2014, is considered the catalyst of the podcast renaissance and still sits in the top ten of many download charts. Examining the murder of Hae-Min Lee, a high-school student, and questioning the involvement of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, it pulled the true-crime genre from the backwaters of American cable television into the cultural mainstream. In 2015 the second season told the story of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier captured by the Taliban; but as a reported story rather than a pulpy whodunit it was less popular with fans and critics. Even so, the season managed to attract more listeners than its predecessor. 

For the third iteration, the final episodes of which are currently being released, the makers of “Serial” have decided to focus on systemic problems rather than individuals. Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi go in search of a greater understanding of the machinations of American law. As Ms Koenig explains, Mr Syed’s case is far too anomalous to reveal what works, or doesn’t work, in the country’s criminal-justice system. He “was charged with first-degree murder. He had never been in trouble before. His family hired an expensive defense attorney,” she says. “And rarest of all, his case went to trial, and it lasted six weeks. None of that is typical of the vast majority of cases moving through the criminal courts in this country.”

It is not only a less extraordinary story, but one without a clearly defined narrative arc. The “Serial” team embeds itself in courtrooms for over a year in Cleveland, Ohio, “the least exceptional, most middle-of-the-road, most middle-of-the-country place”. It is a majority black city, and many of the defendants featured are black; the officials, the judges and the courtroom staff are white. This imbalance is evident everywhere. In one episode a white judge addresses the male defendants as “brother” or “dude”, and asks women how many children they have. Elsewhere, Ms Koenig asks a woman why she felt comfortable unleashing a “slurry of invective” at officers while in custody. She responds simply: “I’m a white girl”. Her attorney admits that, although he will not bring up her race in court, “it never helps to be black and never hurts to be white”.

The stories featured are not high-profile miscarriages of justice, but routine abuses. “No one is screaming his name at a rally,” says Ms Koenig about Erimius, a man assaulted by police officers in his own apartment complex (they thought he had a gun; he did not). Jesse, another man, was arrested, challenged to a fight and then beaten up by two officers. The officers were fired—one was even convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to prison—but when Mr Dzotsi follows up, he finds that Jesse had been routinely harassed by police since; body-cam footage shows that they “hone in” on him. A civil-rights attorney tells Ms Koenig that these small cases matter because they “ricochet”. Distrust of police starts with one person and spreads through communities.

While season one ended with the promise of a retrial for Mr Syed, which brought joy to those who believe he is innocent, there are few things to feel hopeful about in these episodes. There are no neat conclusions or feel-good resolutions. At best, the hosts suggest that better community policing, valuing fairness as well as efficiency and keeping track of sentencing measures and their effects might improve the legal system. 

That listeners are persevering with the series regardless—“Serial” was still the most downloaded podcast in America one month after its launch—says a lot about the state of long-form audio storytelling. Those who can be bothered to fumble around on clunky apps, download and listen regularly are determined enough to “walk on coals”, as Nicholas Quah, a trade journalist, put it. These podcasts are established parts of people’s daily routines, with 48m Americans listening to at least one a week. 

Though it is hard to be invested in a large cast of characters, and there are no cliffhangers or red herrings to urge the story on, “Serial” still makes for compelling listening. The hosts navigate the material in a way that is vivid, empathetic and engaging. The cacophony of voices is reminiscent of “Harper High School” (2012), two episodes produced by “This American Life” (a radio show also affiliated with “Serial”) on the gangs of Chicago’s South Side. The feature focused on a school where 29 current or recent students had been shot in the past year, highlighting the quiet suffering of young people amid everyday violence. It demonstrated the strengths of in-depth reporting in audio, evident now in “Serial”.

Still, many fans will still be disappointed that Ms Koenig and her team have opted to leave the thrills and spills of murder-mystery behind (they can indulge in them again when “The Case Against Adnan Syed”, a documentary series, is broadcast on HBO next year). “Serial” has turned to larger questions, and ones less straightforward to answer, of what constitutes crime in America and who gets to mete out the punishment. 

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