2014, Podcasts

Serial (2014)

I have never been a big podcast person. In fact, I think it was only in 2014 when I regularly started listening to them – I know, I missed the bus – and then, mostly just the Lowe Post. But Serial has changed all that.

Moderate spoilers follow.

At least initially, podcasts seem to have been more forums for discussion, or for vignettes, or for archiving and syndicating radio shows, rather than for long-form narrative. Even the multi-part podcasts I am aware of are not the kind of serialized narrative that you associate with old movies and radio, or that we now associate with the recent Golden Age of Television. But Serial has dramatically altered the landscape, I think. (This is not a new idea.) Here we have a serialized true crime story (at least, true crime this season) that carries the kind of “can’t miss that next episode” mania that only a few TV shows have even managed of late. (Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, particularly, but apparently also True Detective, something I have yet to see.)

So that, by itself, makes the show remarkable.

But the more remarkable thing is that it is, to my knowledge, the first time a book-length true crime story has been launched via this relatively new medium, and it carries all that is great about true crime: a mystery with lies, foggy memories, not enough evidence and loads and loads of doubt. And it was handled admirably well. I for one agree almost entirely with the show’s conclusion, in that I have a certain standard for evidence that I think all murder cases should meet, especially in any state where there is a possibility of the death penalty. As Koenig puts it, it doesn’t matter whether we think he’s guilty or not, the evidence just isn’t there.

Anyway, I just wanted to briefly note how amazing this whole experience was, and that I wholeheartedly look forward to next season, though I worry that there might be a lack of enthusiasm for that season if they choose to cover a story that is not true crime.

So, if you haven’t listened to this, listen now. It’s fantastic.

9/10, or perhaps 10/10 for its historical importance launching the True Crime Podcast Boom.

And now, for the sad part…

I just wanted to complain about how we, as people, cannot not have nice things. The idea that Serial is somehow racist, or that it marginalizes the people at the centre of the story, is patently absurd. We seem to be obsessed with trying to find ways in which even exceptionally well made entertainments are not really what they seem – witness one lady writing about how The Wire wasn’t critical enough of the power structure while it was practically the only serialized drama in US TV history (at the time) to be critical of it, despite that fact that the world, and the United States, has far more pressing problems. Now, I haven’t read the article in question (and I will not be reading it) but how could I even post about Serial without even acknowledging that this idea – that Serial has a race problem, a “white reporter privilege” problem – is out there?

And that’s kind of the problem. I’m not sure this is genuine. I mean, the people who obsess over it might feel they are being genuine, but it strikes me as a rather grand way of getting attention: write something critical of the flavour of the month. In this case, make it about how an NPR reporter – who, as a woman, could easily have her own stories of marginalization, especially had she been born a few decades earlier – is somehow marginalizing the communities and people she is covering, simply because she is white. (Meanwhile, the United States has apparently declared war on black people, but this woman’s “privilege” is far more salient right now and far more worth our time and energy.)

People continue to conflate prejudice with racism, as if it’s the same thing. And people continue to think that it is the author’s job – actually, the author’s duty – to remove their prejudice / bias. But that isn’t true. We have utterly forgotten the meaning of “objectivity” when it comes to reportage. It doesn’t mean removing bias, it means acknowledging it, and I do not for a second see that Koenig did anything untoward in this regard. Her honesty and forthrightness about her feelings on the case are one of the things that makes Serial great.

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