Downloading Serial (part 3)

November 10, 2014
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Previously on “Downloading Serial

I peered down the rabbit hole of Serial’s Reddit board. Today I want to explore it a little more, raising the question of how people listen to Serial.

For anyone reading this without a media studies background, this might seem like a secondary digression for a critical analysis of the podcast itself. But one of the tenets of media studies is that any text (like a film or podcast) only matters through its consumption and cultural circulation. And I contend that a serialized text’s reception is even more essential, as the timeframe of production, consumption, and circulation is intertwined, and the gaps between episodes generate far more cultural material about the series than typically occurs in a self-contained text. Thus how we listen helps shape what it is.

Right now, how people are listening to Serial is the most interesting facet of Serial to me. This is not to say the last two episodes aren’t interesting—they definitely are, both in laying out the case against Adnan last week, and this week confirming my own sense that the case left “mountains of reasonable doubt” according to the experts in the law clinic. But together they feel like a transitional moment in Serial, moving from the first wave of establishing the facts as presented in trial, to the process of pushing back against that conviction and proposing alternate narratives. After all, we’re given a key clue as to where this might be going in this last episode: “As a legal question, Deirdre says they should only have to prove Adnan isn’t their guy, he’s not the killer. But as a practical matter, she said, their chances are much better if they can go a step further, and say to the state, ‘not only is this not your guy, we can tell you who is your guy.’” I assume Sarah Koenig says this knowing full well that offering a compelling case for an alternative perpetrator plays much better not only as a legal matter, but as a non-fiction narrative too. Whether that will be Jay, as teased for next episode, or someone else is still to be determined.

But one place where such questions are already being explored are on Serial’s many paratexts. The Reddit board is thriving, with more than 7,000 subscribers (and rapidly growing) and constant chatter between episodes. Slate started tackling Serial on their “Spoiler Special” podcast after the fifth episode, and they have now created a dedicated “Serial Spoiler Special” podcast that now ranks #7 on iTunes (Serial itself is #1). Serial is a popular topic on Twitter and many culture-centered websites, generating copious conversation and analytical attention. There is even a parody series, a sure sign of cultural importance in this day and age. What most interests me is how these paratextual practices fit with norms that have been well established over the past two decades for fans of fictional television series. I mentioned this briefly last post, with Reddit fans creating timelines, but it deserves more consideration.

As I have analyzed elsewhere, fictional television viewers have embraced forensic fandom for many series to try to parse out what is happening in a program and speculate what is still to come. Often times this involves gathering together evidence from interviews with producers, subtle clues within a series like freeze-frame images or intertextual references, and exploring official paratexts that point to broader contexts. Serial fans are doing all of these things, but with the added dimension that they are researching a non-fiction story, with much of the material in the public record. This creates a very strange differential of knowledge: some listeners want to only know what has been shared in the podcast (but still want to discuss that material and often ache with anticipation for the next episode), while others are looking into other sources of information, creating what we might think of as “reality spoilers” (in Myles McNutt’s phrase, as coined in a Twitter conversation).

As with spoilers of fictional series, the reasons why someone might seek to be spoiled are wide-ranging, including wanting to short-circuit anticipation, focusing more on how a story is told rather than what will happen, and hoping to thwart the producers. In the case of Serial, it seems that the nonfiction nature of the story, with much of the “action” occurring in the past, inspires forensic fans to do their own investigations into the case largely because that story information did not emerge from the creative impulses of producers—knowing that there are trial documents and news reports out there makes them irresistible paratexts for some listeners. In this way, fans become parallel investigators to Koenig, and I’m sure some of them are motivated by the competitive drive to “scoop” or at least equal the journalists. Of course, we have seen many cases in recent years of the dangers of online communities trying to be amateur cops, as with the wrongful accusations in the Boston Marathon bombing case and others; there have been ethical discussions on the Reddit board as to what information is appropriate to share versus withhold, given the potential recriminations that being linked to the murder might bring (as discussed in this Guardian piece on the fan phenomenon). And even parties who know more about the case can be respectful of Koenig’s storytelling imperatives to avoid spoilers, as with the fascinating blog of Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first brought the case to Koenig’s attention—she fleshes out lots of details and perspectives, but always in deference to Serial’s sequence of revelations.

Another key element of the forensic fandom involves the operational aesthetic, the focus on how a story is being told. As I’ve argued, this is a key element of contemporary serial television, both in fiction and reality television, and such attention to the mechanics of Serial’s storytelling are a central concern of both Slate’s podcast and the fan discussions. People parse out why Koenig makes the choices she does, what she’s omitting and including (like last names of key figures like Jay vs. Jenn), and the strategies the series seems to be following. The type of analysis I’m offering here on Antenna is widespread, both among the Redditors and journalists covering the series, as there seems to be an intense focus on where Serial is going and how it is being put together.

In thinking through the fan reaction and forensic attention the series has gotten, I’ve come to one conclusion: the ending of Serial will be regarded as a disappointment for a large number of listeners. As brought up by Cynthia Myers and Mike Newman in a Twitter conversation, Serial invites comparison to The Thin Blue Line, but it seems unlikely that the series ends with Adnan’s conviction being overturned. As Koenig has reasserted numerous times, she is still reporting the case (and seemingly the Innocence Project is also still working on it), and she doesn’t know where it will end. If fans are bringing expectations from well-crafted serial fiction, an ending that doesn’t resolve neatly or conclusively would seem to violate its assumed arc. Even the best fictional series rarely nail their endings, as expectations are too high and varied to please most viewers. Given that Serial’s ending is still a moving target, it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve in a manner sufficiently satisfying to match its hype. (This point is made more expansively and eloquently by NPR’s Linda Holmes, in a piece I read after drafting my column.)

And yet, even knowing that a satisfying ending is unlikely, and that elements of the reporting fill me with discomfort for rehashing a girl’s murder to prompt fans to debate the entertainment value of the series, I still listen, read, and write about Serial. What’s the draw of this format, this series, and this story? Next time, on “Downloading Serial”…


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3 Responses to “ Downloading Serial (part 3) ”

  1. Cynthia B. Meyers on November 13, 2014 at 8:44 PM

    Not only is Serial going to confound audience expectations for answers, it seems set to go down as total whiplash. The posters on Reddit–yes, I am a lurker now–constantly complain (brag?) of being emotionally swayed back and forth and back again. Documentaries, in general, have always been criticized for being too manipulative (selective editing, narrators, dramatic music)–hence the rise of cinema verite, which positioned documentary as merely authentic observation, although that’s just a pose too. And here we are, the Serial audience, wondering just how manipulated we are, just how authentic this narrative journey is, and just who is being the pathological liar here. Is this essential to good storytelling? Or is this just base manipulation? The Reddit threads are full of this debate: I look forward to the dissertation to come!

    • Jason Mittell on November 16, 2014 at 10:59 AM

      Personally, I think being manipulated is part of the contract we make when we engage with a fiction – we want to go for a ride, and be surprised by the twists and turns. Every genre has its conventions and assumptions for that manipulation to be “fair,” but we accept that the author is withholding information, misleading, or otherwise sculpting our experiences. But nonfiction is another ballgame, and when drawn out over time like SERIAL is, those manipulations start to feel unfair, or at least unclear as to what the groundrules are.

      • Cynthia B. Meyers on November 16, 2014 at 1:15 PM

        Your point about the fuzzy chronology of Serial’s episodes (e.g., when did Koenig talk to the Innocence Project? when did Koenig talk to Jay?) helps explain why some of these narrative strategies are beginning to feel “unfair” or manipulative to me. Seems like Serial’s effort to be “authentic” in the “You Are There” style–the audience is supposed to be experiencing the narrative turns the way Koenig did (or has or will)–is beginning to feel exploitative (of its audience, of its subjects). Hmmm, how to discuss without being accused of concern-trolling? 😉