Downloading Serial (part 4)

December 18, 2014
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Previously on “Downloading Serial

… was more than a month ago. Why the delay? Partly it was personal circumstances: a dead hard drive, family commitments, end of the semester craziness. But more it was because I didn’t quite have enough to say to warrant an installment, as many of my thoughts were only partly formed, or contingent on how future Serial developments would play out before I wanted to commit to an analysis. My abiding sense that Serial itself was in flux as a cultural object made it difficult to write an analysis that could avoid its own wavering and uncertainty.

But now we are done, or at least the standard weekly release of the story of Adnan Syed on Serial has ended. His story is far from over, but the storytelling has stopped. And I’m left to reflect on what Serial was, and might have been, had it not been so wedded to its weekly release schedule and need to conclude before the holiday season kicks in. One of the most exciting elements of Serial is how it has seemed to be inventing its own structural conventions throughout its run, distinguishing itself from typical radio with variable episode lengths, and jumping onto the high wire act of simultaneously reporting and presenting astory. From the beginning, Sarah Koenig has said that we’ll be following along with her as she discovers the story, and that they did not know how exactly many episodes the first season would be. But the final month has felt like they were spinning their wheels, looking for material to structure each weekly episode (especially last week’s “Rumors” installment), even given the extra break for Thanksgiving, and finding ways to incorporate the miscellaneous new information that kept pouring in.

Despite its conclusive allusion to Dragnet, which made me smile, today’s final episode felt rather arbitrary, dictated by the desire to have a defined season of regular installments, and seemingly to avoid the counter-programming of Christmas and New Year’s. There is no resolution, with two court motions still in play but otherwise no change in Adnan’s status or compelling alternate suspects—the last minute identification of a serial killer felt underwhelming, making me yearn for an episode exploring that story and teasing out the many problems with that theory. Koenig ends by playing juror and acquitting Adnan, but even as bits of evidence may have swayed her opinions slightly throughout the series, I have no doubt that she has always held sufficient reasonable doubt. The ending of Serial, entitled “What We Know,” establishes that although we know a lot more about the case than when we began, the big picture is the same as established in the pilot: the prosecution’s case was not enough to warrant conviction, but no other explanation for Hae’s murder rises above the level of unsubstantiated speculation inappropriate for factual journalism.

I’ve been interested in how Serial draws upon conventions of serialized TV fiction, and there is no doubt that the podcast’s unprecedented popularity was fueled by those resonances. But in the end, I think those comparisons also highlight Serial’s greatest weaknesses. The producers fail to achieve the structural elegance that marks the best of serial storytelling, where each episode both stands on its own and as piece of a compelling larger whole. They tackled a genre of crime fiction where our expectations are always aimed at a revelation that will be satisfying and conclusive, answering the curiosity question of “what happened in the past?”, which is an unreasonable goal for an ongoing investigation to arrive at. They embraced a serialized form that has encouraged and even demanded forensic fandom to fill in the gaps between episodes, but did not account for how to deal with the ethics of fan investigation into an actual murder, and whether to integrate or ignore such fan practices. And by adopting the model of weekly episodes of a thematically unified season, they were forced to produce episodes without much new to say, and stop producing episodes before the story had finished unfolding.

None of these structural facets are essential aspects of a serialized podcast. Specifically, I wonder how Serial may have played out with a more flexible production and distribution schedule. There is no doubt that the weekly release creates a ritual of engagement that is hard to replicate, but after a few episodes establishing the hook, moving to a more sporadic release as motivated by the story and reporting could sustain that engagement. And why must the series end now, just because further weekly releases are untenable? Imagine that in two months you noticed there was a new episode of Serial waiting in your iTunes playlist, with an update on Adnan’s appeal, or an in-depth investigation into the possible guilt of Ronald Lee Moore. That would set Twitter ablaze, and renew interest in the series (and sustain engagement in anticipation of the next season). Unlike television or radio, there is no need for a podcast to follow regular schedules, as it can be updated and distributed more like software or blogposts. Fiction has long shaped crime stories to fit into the constraints of a book, a film, or serialized television—Serial has adopted those constraints for a new medium, rather than exploring how non-fiction audio might more radically reshape the serial form. Much has been said about how Serial’s success has made podcasting into a more legitimate and popular medium; I hope it can inspire more creative uses of the medium’s structure and serial possibilities.

I conclude here where I began as well—I think Serial is a remarkable achievement, and I found it truly compelling listening. And yet… I am left dismayed by the structural limitations it imposed upon itself, by the ethical considerations that it seemed unable to grapple with effectively, and the genre trouble stemming from marrying non-fiction content to fictional storytelling norms. I don’t find these flaws to be debilitating, or that my critiques are merely “concern trolling” (as I’ve been accused of doing). Instead, such dissatisfaction is the fuel that keeps me engaged—given the ongoing promise of seriality, we always hope for more, for different, and for better. While I doubt we’ll get more of Adnan’s story within Serial proper (although I assume there will be a This American Life episode in a few months following-up on the developing story), we will get another season. Hopefully Koenig and her team won’t try to recreate what worked this season, but rather explore a new story on its own terms, with new storytelling structures and less constrained possibilities for what podcasting may be. Regardless, I’ll be listening.


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5 Responses to “ Downloading Serial (part 4) ”

  1. Greeney28 on December 19, 2014 at 12:11 PM

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jason. Your early posts kept me on schedule with my listening, when normally I would be terribly behind. I also really enjoyed your discussion of the podcast form–something I’ve thought about less–so you got my brain going in a whole new direction.

    I don’t know who used the phrase “concern trolling” (a pretty radical overuse of the word “troll” IMHO), but I was relieved to see you make the case for genuine pleasure from the experience despite disappointment at some elements. Experiments with the new are messy, and they should be if they are genuine efforts to try something different.

    My main quibble with Serial is Koenig’s public persona in interviews. Once this thing was a phenomenon, I wanted her to be as “gosh gee” in the interviews as she appears on her podcast. Instead, she seemed to project a sort of willful denial that she had entered into something without fully realizing its tremendous potential and pitfalls. Seems the achievement of Serial could have been examined more closely by Koenig herself, even if that meant she had to show a bit of weakness.

    The anxiety that seems to be lurking here, and this includes references to the Lost finale that have been tied to Serial, is that authors enjoy duping their audience. I don’t know why an ending can’t disappoint without the complete character assassination of the author. Since when did we start to expect perfection at all times? As a television scholar–someone who embraces looooong form–failure is inevitable: of a storyline, an individual episode, casting, etc. Serial ended up being just a few episodes, but its production history seems more akin to the hectic pace of the soap opera. I’m not sure I have patience for anyone who wants to discount the whole because of the inevitable flaws.

  2. Cynthia Meyers on December 21, 2014 at 10:54 PM

    Thanks for another interesting column.

    I wonder if some of these issues stem from the producers’ decision to continue reporting as they went. Some episodes seemed more reflexive as more participants emerged with more reminiscences in response to the program’s popularity–I wondered if it would become a program about itself. Besides, having established how bad our memories are, why continue raking through more 15-year-old memories?

    I still think they thought they were going to pull a Thin Blue Line: find enough evidence to completely recast the narrative. Instead, they succeeded in creating doubt–an accomplishment in itself–but little certainty about anything. And deciding to stop, when new questions beg to be investigated (that PERK kit?), definitely felt strange.

    The best thing about Serial is that the producers found a story that functioned like an earworm. The episodes may be over, but the story is not.

  3. Myles McNutt on December 22, 2014 at 12:39 AM

    Echoing some of Cynthia’s comments, what I found most interesting about the finale was how it tried to shift this away from being Koenig’s story.

    It was, ultimately: she is its protagonist, and it is the document of her investigation more than the case itself. However, in the finale she consciously emphasized the role of her producers and their respective perspectives on the case, refusing to offer a definitive “answer” herself but emphasizing the fact that various independent contributors have each come out of this with their own feelings, not unlike the audience.

    In this way, I feel that Serial exists as a starting point: it is not actually one story told week by week, but rather the “passing on” of a story to a broader audience, who can choose to follow that story in ways that could change its income or simply become one of the numerous things they follow. In this way, it becomes similar to documentary films in which we as audience members watch the film and discover its subject, and then follow along independent of the documentary filmmaker who made the introduction. The media will still follow Adnan’s case, and the Reddit forum will still live on, albeit all in more muted forms than the podcast itself. Its seriality was less about telling a more expansive or detailed story, and more about integrated “following” the story into our weekly routines, making it easier to imagine checking in on the story in the future.

    This wasn’t how it was sold, and I don’t know if Koenig ever articulated it clearly in the end, but it’s how I felt during the episode and in the days after.

  4. Jason Mittell on December 22, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Karen: yes, I too wish Koenig had been reflexive in a different way – not just about her perspectives on the case and investigation, but commenting overtly on the cultural life of SERIAL itself. There were some covert allusions, but mostly she tried to maintain an illusion that the podcast existed independently of its circulation, which is ridiculous & goes against the tenets of seriality. (But I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to attack Koenig et. al. for not delivering a perfect ending – there is no such thing, and I think their inability to figure out what they were doing serially was quite interesting and even enjoyable.)

    Cynthia: I actually wonder if they thought that raising uncertainty would be more interesting than finding definitive closure, as that’s a more THIS AMERICAN LIFE move. But in aiming toward that, they underestimated how people (and how many people) would become invested in the case as the thrust of the podcast.

    Myles: I like this idea, but we need to remember that the majority of listeners are not forensic fans, and won’t even follow the press reporting. They got hooked into the podcast, and if it’s not on that platform, the case will recede into fuzzy memories.

  5. bwunderlick on December 23, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    Hi! I’m the person who said you were concern trolling here and I stand by that. I find the focus on whether or not the show fails or succeeds to fulfill your arbitrary categorizations just missing the point about the show and the wealth of topics related to it itself. For example, why don’t we actually engage with the crazy idea that people are conducting “forensic fandom” in an actual murder? I mean, why don’t we think about the ethics of labeling a whole range of frankly weird, anti-social behavior as “fandom” instead of chastising the show for not having a strategy for dealing with them. (It’s pretty clear to me the strategy was to ignore them because the Serial producers are actual journalists and media producers, not people with reddit accounts on google). I personally am not a fan of the show for many reasons but think there is a lot to talk about, but this focus on categorization/genre is just bizarre to me. Why not talk about the program directly? Should I clarify if this is a blog post, academic essay, facebook/tumblr post or personal free write before engaging with its content?