By Jonathan Rubin
My high school was an hour and a half away from my house, which meant I had to spend a lot of time in the car. I quickly found National Public Radio (NPR) and became a daily listener. As my affinity with the medium of talk radio grew, I began to listen to podcasts as well.
While podcasts are a very new form of media, there is something profoundly old about them. One cannot help but think of radio dramas that one’s grandparents likely tuned into weekly.
When I heard about “Serial” in an ad on “This American Life,” I was intrigued. I knew of Sarah Koenig, the show’s host and creator, because of a story she did on “This American Life” about her father, Julien Koenig—of “Think Small” fame—who many believe to be the greatest copywriter for advertising of all time. Her skills as a storyteller and the premise of the show, “one story, told week by week,” peaked my interest enough so that on the first day the first episode became available, I played it over the auxiliary cord in my father’s car. I quickly became enthralled by the story of Adnan Seyed, who was charged with killing his girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
Koenig told the harrowing and question-filled story with great care. Like her listeners, Koenig did not know what to think, and had no problem with saying she did not know what the answer was. Everything about the show drew you in. The theme music, Koenig, the story and its characters all came together to form an addicting listening experience.
As the season progressed, the show became more and more popular. It became the number one podcast on iTunes and a cultural phenomenon. The listenership it garnered was unprecedented for a podcast and quickly a community of listeners formed who wanted to parse out the truth, with the help of Koenig. It was written up in newspapers, got its own Reddit page and there were even podcasts about “Serial” being created.
When the show ended, I was very curious about the subject of the next season. When I found out that the show would be following the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who was freed in a prisoner swap with the Taliban, I was disappointed.
Part of the reason I loved the first season was the care it was taking with an untold story. Bergdahl’s story is one we have heard in the media already. We even heard different narratives about his story. Obviously, Koenig’s skillful reporting will illuminate parts of Bergdahl’s imprisonment and release that the public did not know about or had not thought of, but there would not be the same sense of discovery or novelty that the first season had.
Now that a few of the episodes have aired, I cannot help but feel like my trepidations were true. Koenig and her team have done an excellent job with the story, but it is not as enthralling as the first case was.
Maybe this story is not quite right for the “Serial” treatment. There just are not that many questions. We know Bergdahl ran away of his own volition, we know he was captured and we know he was released through a prison swap. Little was clear about the first season besides the fact that the government’s case against Seyed was lacking in some areas.
Another issue with this season is Bergdahl himself. Seyed was a charismatic and charming figure and every time he spoke, one couldn’t help but believe him about his innocence. Bergdahl on the other hand is not relatable. He is cold and uncomfortable and his justifications for his actions are strange and unsatisfactory. His behavior is easier to understand knowing of the intense trauma he must have gone through as a prisoner of war.
Even if the show is not as good as it was, I will keep listening as long as the magic the show has captured is still there.
“Serial” airs Thursday mornings on iTunes, Pandora and serialpodcast.org