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Serial: The Podcast You Need to Hear

An episodic true-crime investigation proves that podcasts–yes, podcasts!–are the freshest and most addictive form of storytelling today

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Elise Bergerson

[DESKTOP_WEB_APP_EMBARGO {11282014} {130621} {11-27-2014} {It’s already fairly obvious that today’s best TV shows aren’t actually on television: You’ll find them on Netflix, or Amazon, or some dark corner of the Internet. But is it also possible that fall’s most addictive drama isn’t a TV show at all? You might find yourself thinking about that question if you, like so many of us at EW, are suddenly obsessed with iTunes’ No. 1 podcast, Serial, which comes from the makers of This American Life. When Ira Glass introduced the series on This American Life‘s blog in September, he explained, ”Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week…like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”} {

It’s already fairly obvious that today’s best TV shows aren’t actually on television: You’ll find them on Netflix, or Amazon, or some dark corner of the Internet. But is it also possible that fall’s most addictive drama isn’t a TV show at all?

You might find yourself thinking about that question if you, like so many of us at EW, are suddenly obsessed with iTunes’ No. 1 podcast, Serial, which comes from the makers of This American Life. When Ira Glass introduced the series on This American Life‘s blog in September, he explained, ”Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week…like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”

Although it’s a nonfiction podcast, the series does play like a prestige cable show. Like True Detective or American Horror Story, each season will follow a different suspenseful story over multiple episodes. Rather than reverting to the inverted-triangle structure of most nonfiction reporting, the first season is narrated by Serial‘s main character, executive producer Sarah Koenig, who’s investigating the 1999 murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee, allegedly by Hae’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. There are star-crossed lovers from different immigrant backgrounds. There’s a good cop/bad cop duo. There are cliff-hanger endings that hinge on Adnan’s apparent guilt or innocence. At one point, Adnan challenges Koenig to re-create the prosecution’s timeline because, he says, ”I’ve seen it before on Dateline or Nightline, where someone tries to reenact the crime, and it’s like, The crime could not have been committed.” Even Adnan views this story as if it’s happening to someone on television.

Critics have been comparing Serial to HBO’s The Wire. Both series follow a vibrant cast of detectives, drug dealers, and streetwise kids in Baltimore—where the legal system often fails them and the smallest mistakes can doom them for life. And fans have been consuming Serial in the same way as HBO’s cult hit: bingeing on it, recapping it, creating Serial memes, parodies, and discussion groups. One meet-up at New York’s Algonquin Hotel has been dubbed ”The Sound Table,” after the Algonquin’s famous literary Round Table. A single section of Reddit devoted to Serial has more than 8,000 registered contributors, all posting their own detective work and whodunit theories.

But if Serial feels like a classic crime drama, it also deconstructs TV tropes, revealing that what we’ve learned from procedurals doesn’t always work in a real case. If you watch CSI, for example, you might imagine that detectives can solve a case in five minutes simply by sending DNA evidence to the lab. (There’s a legal term for that—”the CSI effect”—and research suggests that it’s inspiring unrealistic demands from jurors for forensic evidence in real life.) Serial shows just how deceptive any ”definitive” evidence can be. Koenig discovers that cell-phone records are unreliable when it comes to establishing Adnan’s whereabouts on the day of the murder. She pokes holes in a taped confession from a pot dealer known simply as Jay, who testifies against Adnan in the trial, by pointing out that detectives spent hours with him before they pressed ”record.” (Were they coaching him?) The more Koenig investigates, the less certain she becomes about the facts, and her uncertainty fuels the suspense. Although Koenig started reporting in January of this year, she and her team often stay up late on Wednesday nights wrapping up Thursday’s episodes. There’s a ticking-clock pace to the mystery, both on the podcast and in real life.

Of course, real life isn’t tightly plotted like television. Some fans have complained that certain episodes of Serial, like the one in which Koenig consults the Innocence Project about the holes in the case, do nothing to further our knowledge of who killed Hae. But maybe that’s the whole point. There’s no showrunner writing this story. Red herrings aren’t placed in our path for some narrative reason—they’re just a fact of life. ”Bad guys” are just flawed humans, as a recent episode about Jay revealed. ”Objective” reporting always comes from a subjective place, which is what makes framing this case within Koenig’s perspective feel more honest than some third-person voice of authority would. She’s asking the same questions and confessing to the same biases that we have ourselves. That’s what makes Serial feel so fresh.

Admittedly, all that humanity might make it difficult for Serial to reach a satisfying conclusion. Amateur sleuths are waging online debates about the case that the podcast hasn’t even touched on yet. (Was there blood found on Hae’s shirt that didn’t belong to Hae, Jay, or Adnan, or is that just a misinterpretation of the court records?) And there are only a few episodes left. Listening to a dozen installments only to remain just as uncertain about Adnan’s guilt might be frustrating. Even if Koenig finds enough evidence to exonerate Adnan by the season’s end, the law can’t free a wrongly imprisoned man in time for the finale. And say Adnan is exonerated—that doesn’t mean he’s not guilty. The fact that Serial forces you to evaluate your own complicity in this case, including your feelings about dismissing any complicating factors that stand in the way of a good story, is what makes it so gripping. Then again, demanding to be entertained by a case that involves the real-life murder of a teenager might be even more unsettling to consider. Okay, so maybe this podcast isn’t exactly like television. Maybe it’s even better.

Read more: Behind the scenes of Serial

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