Downloading Serial (part 1)

October 13, 2014
By | 12 Comments


I should preface this column by saying that I felt particularly hailed by Serial, the new hit podcast from the producers of This American Life. I have been an avid listener of TAL for more than a decade, shifting from weekly appointment radio to can’t-miss podcasts. I even remember the very first time I heard the program, as I was visiting a friend in Chicago in November 1998 and she suggested we tune in this fairly-new local public radio show on my car radio as we drove across the city—fortunately, the first story we heard was the unforgettable “Squirrel Cop,” so I was instantly hooked. Podcasts are my favorite thing to listen to while driving, mowing the lawn, or walking the dog, so it’s easy to fit a new one into my daily rhythms. And given that I have spent the last ten years focusing my academic research on understanding contemporary serial storytelling, this new podcast felt like it was made particularly for me.

And now that three episodes have “aired” (or whatever verb we use for a downloadable audio file), I think it’s great—each episode adds a new installment in the true crime tale of a high school murder in 1999 and the convicted killer who might very well be innocent. The structure maximizes intrigue as to what happened 15 years ago, and what might happen to potentially clear Adnan Syed from the murder charge. The production is as tight and smooth as TAL, making it sound like an established project that hits the ground running, rather than the typical startup choppiness of most new podcasts trying to establish a voice. So it’s definitely worth all the attention it’s been getting and you should certainly become a regular listener.

And yet…

I have some reservations that stem from its formal innovations. Serial’s titular use of seriality raises some interesting narrative wrinkles, as it applies the serial form to journalistic nonfiction in seemingly unique ways. There have certainly been journalistic series before, where a reporter stretches a story over multiple days or even weeks, but in such cases that I know of, it feels like the reporting is ongoing rather than segmenting a single story to maximize suspense and engagement. Likewise, documentaries like the 7 Up series or Paradise Lost’s sequels return to the story after new information or revelations develop during the serial gaps. And of course reality TV serializes nonfiction stories, but typically such narratives are contrived by design, rather than the high-stakes matters of murder and a life sentence. Serial producers report most of the story ahead of time, and serial their presentation of the material. (According to interviews, they are still producing episodes and doing more reporting as the podcast rolls out, but the bulk of the reporting was completed before launch.) And this creates some genre trouble.

Serial’s storytelling owes to other genres besides journalism, with an embedded murder mystery at its core. In exploring this murder, the program functions as a crime procedural, detailing investigations by both the police and the lead reporter, Sarah Koenig. In television, we tend to equate “procedural” with “episodic,” as the bulk of crime programs that highlight investigations focus on stand-alone cases each week in a tradition dating back to Dragnet. But the serialized procedural has emerged recently as a hybrid, tracing the investigative process over time on police dramas The Killing and Broadchurch (innovated importantly by Twin Peaks, which I recently conversed about on this very site). I’ve studied the use of the serial procedural model on The Wire, which dramatizes and serializes procedures not only for police, but also for drug dealers, unions, politicians, teachers, and reporters. This last one is the vital link to Serial, as The Wire creates an interesting intertext: Koenig, like Wire creator David Simon, was a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun before moving into electronic media, and this crime story takes place in Baltimore County. When I am visualizing the scenes described on Serial, I reference the visuals of The Wire to help set the milieu.

Koenig’s role is crucial here, as I would argue that she is the main character of Serial, and this is where my reservations emerge. Obviously there is the highly dramatic material around the murder case, but the podcast’s narrative arc is Koenig’s own process of discovery in investigating the case. The first episode highlights how she learned about the murder, why she began investigating, and her growing reservations about the conviction. I figured that we would trace her investigative process as it unfolds, providing the vector which the series would follow. However, the episodes are structured more topically, with each exploring a particular aspect of the case in depth—thus far we have delved into Adnan’s alibi, Hae and Adnan’s relationship, and the discovery of her body. This last episode raised my concerns about the podcast’s structure: the whole episode centers on “Mr. S” and his unusual stumbling across Hae’s body in Leakin Park (which is visited and referenced on The Wire as “where West Baltimore brings out its dead”). It’s an engaging episode with great twists—he’s a streaker?!—but I’m left wondering how it fits into the larger narrative arc. Is this just a red herring? Does it help us learn more about the core case of Adnan’s conviction, or is it just a colorful digression to flesh out the whole story? And most importantly, what does Koenig know when she’s presenting this facet of the story?

Since Koenig is both Serial’s lead character and the lead authorial figure (or more accurately, functions as the inferred author), her knowledge is crucial to our narrative comprehension. If we were following her process of discovery chronologically, we would share her amount of knowledge about the case—even though there would obviously be a delay in the production process so that the real person Koenig would know more than her radio character would in a given week, we would at least share a linear process of discovery with her. Instead, each episode compresses the discovery over the past year of reporting into a presentation of that aspect of the case. This is much easier to follow than the messy procedures of reporting, where she was certainly investigating multiple facets all at once and only could make sense of certain bits of evidence in retrospect. But by structuring it for both clarity and engagement, I feel like there is a bit of betrayal to the journalistic enterprise, as Koenig and her production team are seemingly presenting information that they know is not crucial to the case, or that later revelations will problematize.

What is their responsibility in telling us what they know upfront? As storytellers, withholding information about a story to maximize dramatic engagement is essential. As journalists, withholding crucial information about a story seems problematic at best, unethical at worst. This conundrum of narrative journalism is compounded by the serial form, as the structural need to withhold and defer story seems to run counter to the journalistic responsibility to inform listeners. While I do not think Serial aims to deceive or mislead us, it does strategically refuse to give us the full story—thus far, we have not been presented with any other viable suspects in the case, any exploration of the crucial witness Jay and his potential role in the crime, or considerations of alternative motives, all of which have been teased as still to come. And yet I assume that Koenig knew of such information and possibilities long before she investigated the burial scene and dived into Mr. S’s odd history. Such deferments make for truly compelling storytelling that I am enjoying, but they make me uncomfortable with the ethics of this format. I get frustrated that Koenig is keeping something from me, feeling like she’s not playing fair—even though I often feel similar frustration about a compelling serial fiction, that’s part of the game for fiction while it violates the rules of journalism. How will this strategy play out over the course of Serial’s many weeks? Will my feeling that information is being withheld get in the way of connecting with the shared experiences and conversations that makes TAL and other long-form audio journalism so powerful? Can I resist researching the case to discover yet-to-be-revealed details certainly lurking online as spoilers (a.k.a. real life)?

These issues are still to be resolved—and that is my motivating question for this series of commentaries on Serial. I’ll post to Antenna on a semi-regular basis (e.g. when I have something more to say), and analyze this new form of serialized audio journalism in terms of narrative, medium, and other issues as they arrive. I also hope to land an interview with Serial’s producers to get a sense of their own procedures and goals in crafting this experiment. Just as Serial represents a new form of serialized journalism, I’m going to try to serialize an essay about the series here, publicly drafting and revising arguments as the source material rolls out. Both are experiments with unpredictable ends. Stay tuned and join the conversation to discover where they might lead.


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12 Responses to “ Downloading Serial (part 1) ”

  1. Cynthia B. Meyers on October 13, 2014 at 6:20 PM

    Great points! You mention the issue of the journalistic ethics of withholding info. Hasn’t that always been a major narrative strategy of TAL? You know, that moment in a TAL story when suddenly something is revealed that changes your perception of the story/characters/events? I have been assuming that Serial is simply a long form version of the TAL reveal process.
    Another question I have is how open-ended the narrative actually is. I have the impression that they are still “working” on this story and so are releasing episodes without “knowing” the story’s conclusion. This reminds me of @summerbreak, where they edited and released episodes without having filmed all the events, thus having to guess at how to shape some story arcs. If indeed the story hasn’t “ended” yet, I am guessing this could be a way of engaging audiences in a more “authentic” “real time” type of experience: an effort to distinguish it from the standard narrative. But just speculating!
    Look forward to more discussion of Serial!

  2. Lori Lopez on October 13, 2014 at 9:06 PM

    I am loving Serial! Great to hear your early thoughts on the podcast, Jason. Some thoughts of my own — I suppose I question why you think it should count as journalism, or more importantly, why “journalism ethics” would demand that we need to know the conclusion of the story at the front. Neither seem very accurate to me. This podcast doesn’t seem remotely journalistic except perhaps inasmuch as literary nonfiction is journalism. But, as the name suggests, literary nonfiction is allowed to be literary — to withhold facts, to feint, to allude, to shape a compelling narrative. Any good magazine article (even one that focuses on a real life crime) is allowed to do as much. The show also seems like a documentary, as you mention, and some of my very favorite documentaries surprise me with the way that they reveal their truths — Dear Zachary, The Imposter, etc. As with Serial, I could always have googled the ending before it started, but the joy is in the way the authors artfully unravel the mystery. None of these narrative forms seem unethical in the least.

    Perhaps I’m missing something because I’m not as interested in what “seriality” means for this podcast, but I just wanted to voice a little defense of how I see the ethics of creating the show.

  3. Jason Mittell on October 14, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    Thanks to both Cynthia & Lori for your comments. I think what’s distinct about SERIAL’s reveal vs. TAL or other forms of nonfiction are the serialized gaps. On an episode of TAL, a compelling magazine piece, a nonfiction book, or a documentary film, you know that everything relevant (which is known) will be revealed by the end of the story that you’ve just picked up. However by adding the serialized gaps, SERIAL defers that reveal in a way that feels odd to me.

    Maybe I’m focused too much on this facet because of my interest in seriality, but it felt “unfair” (whatever that means exactly) to spend an episode on the discovery of the body, despite the appearance that this seems to be irrelevant concerning the core mystery. If it were a chapter in a book or other self-contained work, that’s fine, as you know more relevant information is about to come. But because we need to wait each week, it feels like delaying the relevant info is not motivated.

    I guess here’s the core question–what is the motivation for not addressing what seems to be the most important lingering question after the first two episodes (which launched simultaneously) what’s the deal with Jay? If the podcast were structured chronologically (following the investigation of either the police or Koenig), that would justify this deferral. But as of yet, it feels like this episode was put here to flesh out the story in an interesting but ultimately frustrating way. Might that impression change? Definitely – but that’s the challenge of consuming and critically engaging with a serial text, as the cultural object changes.

    (And I should note that I do love the series, and this reservation of mine is more to generate thoughts & conversation – a post saying how great it is wouldn’t be very interesting…)

    Lori – I’m curious why you don’t think it’s journalistic? The host is a journalist investigating a crime. What is non-journalistic about that?

    Cynthia – Summer Break seems like Big Brother, as semi-real time reality TV. SERIAL may not know the full ending yet, but it’s not proceeding in a week-by-week reportage, saying “this is what we learned about the case in the last week.” I see a structural difference there.

    Thanks again!

  4. Lori Lopez on October 14, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    I think what I’m saying is that there’s a difference between “news” and other types of journalistic endeavors that a journalist might take up — for instance, writing a book, making a documentary, writing a magazine piece, making a podcast. Even writing a feature article is something different from news, even if it appears in a newspaper and is written by a journalist. Just because a journalist does these things doesn’t make them “news” that demands writing in a way that never frustrates the reader with its artful deployment of narrative. So maybe Serial is journalism in some sense, but it certainly isn’t “news” and doesn’t ever pretend to be.

    But more on the idea of feature articles written by journalists — it seems like you are overlooking the existence of serialized journalism, which most certainly already exists. Now this is perhaps not the way that “news” stories are written, but there are plenty of amazing serialized stories written by journalists.

    Here’s one from the NY Times:

    Many Pulitzer prizes have been awarded to many newspapers for their serialized journalism. There is no inherent demand for journalists to contain their stories within a single chapter — many great stories written by journalists demand that you pick up the paper a day later, or a week later to find the next chapter or the conclusion.

    • Jason Mittell on October 14, 2014 at 11:40 AM

      I see the distinction that you mean, and I agree that SERIAL is journalism but not “news.” But I see two key differences between SERIAL and examples of serialized journalism like the hockey story you link to. The first involves the timeframe: while SERIAL has not announced a number of episodes, they’ve estimated between 12-15. Thus we’re talking about a 3+ month span of storytelling, which creates a different mode of engagement more comparable to fictional TV than a newspaper story spread over a week or two.

      The second involves structure. The hockey story is basically chronological, after an intro that “spoils” the ending. Other serialized journalistic pieces follow the chronology of the reporter, uncovering the layers of the story alongside the journalist. But SERIAL seems to be neither of these – at least thus far. This conversation has made me think more about what is motivating the structure, and I’m still unsure – there could be a buried chronology at play, with the opening episode laying out the broader arc and each new episode filling in the details of the chronology. But it doesn’t feel like that to me based on the first three episode, so I’m trying to tease it out.

      Thanks for engaging with me on this – as I said above, this is an experiment in trying to serially explore these ideas to be later coalesced into an essay, so such conversations are essential!

      (And if anyone else reading this has links to other interesting examples of serialized journalism and/or scholarship about serialized journalism, please share them!)

      • Lori Lopez on October 14, 2014 at 11:48 AM

        I guess we’ll have to tune in to find out! A pleasurable assignment indeed… 🙂

  5. Jonathan Nichols-Pethick on October 14, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    Jason, I love what you are doing here and find your ideas truly provocative. I’m enjoying SERIAL as well and am fascinated by its strategies. One of the things that seems to be motivating the storytelling is the issue of time itself. Not chronology itself so much but, rather, the complex interplay between past and present. From the opening gambit, one of the key points of the story seems to be the inability to accurately recall details, events, times, places, and chronology. So while the generic tropes of serialized mystery fiction and journalism come to bear on the presentation (for the sake of entertainment and authenticity), there might be something more elemental at stake here. I agree with you that there seems to be something odd in the treatment of Mr. S as a “red herring.” What’s the point if it doesn’t build to something more important later on? I’m wondering if it’s all about Koenig’s (and the police’s) process which has to slog through so much potentially promising and ultimately misleading information – and she wants to share this with the audience. So, again, maybe there’s something about the impossibility of accuracy here – the way in which no investigation can ever resolve as satisfactorily as a well-crafted story.

  6. Greeney28 on October 22, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    I’ve only listened to the first episode so far, but I came right here to read this once I was done. So thanks for enlarging the experience, Jason. Ironically, it seems some avenues of critique may be impossible until this open narrative experiences some closure. For example, I love the point above that there may be a larger commentary on time–a sort of metadiscourse on memory and chronology that might illuminate broader issues of storytelling. But to what extend can we know how fully that theme may be operating throughout the series until the end of the series?

    I also wonder if there is an implicit critique already at work, even if Koenig is not yet fully aware of it. This comment may be out of date for those of you further into the series, but at the end of episode one, Koenig is bursting with excitement about her discovery of the library witness, yet Adnan completely shuts her down. Her little victory of storytelling does NOTHING for him, and I was struck by how he punctured her narrative euphoria with his stark reality. Ultimately, while we sit through this story in our cars, homes, and other places of leisure, Adnan is sitting in a maximum security prison. That hangs over the whole, and I’m not yet sure what are the implications of that.

    But Koenig as character? YES. Waiting to see how that plays out, too.

  7. bwunderlick on October 26, 2014 at 12:00 AM

    I’m really having trouble understanding what is your criticism here, especially in terms of concern trolling over “journalism”. As others have said, this isn’t even journalism, it’s more like nonfiction storytelling. By your suggestion, every documentary ever would be committing questionable journalism because it presents story information that may or may not be relevant. What you are calling journalism is very ill-defined, and then you are worried it is not adhering to that empty signifier.

    • Jason Mittell on October 27, 2014 at 7:59 AM

      For me the relevant distinction between journalism and nonfiction storytelling in this case involves the present-day significance & high-stakes of the story: there’s a man in jail who might be innocent, and potentially one or more guilty parties who have not been caught. If this were a historical story with no present day consequences, then withholding information or misleading us for dramatic effect seems more “fair”; but there are lives hanging in the balance and Serial‘s reporting is now part of that story. Koenig has admitted that there is crucial transformative information about the case that she is withholding until later in the podcast. What type of withheld information would feel like a “cheat” to the storytelling, and/or a violation of journalistic ethics? I can think of a few.

      • bwunderlick on October 27, 2014 at 9:05 PM

        Present-day significance & high-stakes are so broad to cover nearly anything. Again, it could refer to feature, theatrical documentaries, like Citzenfour. Is Citizenfour morally obligated to not use narrative techniques like withholding information during its run time because the subject is important and current day? Because lives hang in the balance, should it not engage in cinematic storytelling because it has an arbitrary, completely constructed responsibility to journalism (and not to truth or justice or some other standard)?

        I really think the big issue here is what is “journalism” is changing, but instead of considering how it is changing, you are trying to police discursive boundaries. I’d think that would be a much more fruitful and interesting path of inquiry than weather or not what genre this belongs to and if the practitioners have poor ethics for not following the expectations of said genre.

        • Jason Mittell on November 3, 2014 at 12:41 PM

          I’m not trying to police boundaries. I’m trying to explore how expectations for what a piece of long-form journalism changes when it becomes serialized. As I note in the piece, my thoughts are evolving and developing as SERIAL unfolds, and the conversations in the comments develop. Thanks for weighing in!