Let’s Talk Serial (For Serious)

Apologies for the lack of  blogposts as of late. If you remember back in the Spring, my computer was having some issues (thus making me feel like Carrie Bradshaw in that one episode where Aidan is like “you dont back up?” – which sent me into a tizzy at the time. After a few weeks of deliberation, I finally decided to man up and buy a new one. So to break this baby in let’s start with a rant.

If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few months, then you’ve heard the buzz (if you haven’t heard it yourself) around Serial. Serial is already being dubbed the world’s most popular podcast… which makes a lot of sense because the story is enthralling. A few things about Serial I’d like to discuss…

When I hear podcasts I think of Bill Simmons’ B.S. report (thanks to my roommate, Dan), and other sports type podcasts. Nothing really exciting, nothing really to write home about. Another popular podcast is Ira Glass’ ‘This American Life’, which Serial is actually a spin off of. But still, before listening to the podcast I was really curious as to how a podcast could garner so much attention and media around it. Here are my conclusions:

  • Serial is a series… told in episodic form. Just as you would see a TV show documenting a mystery. The narrator, Koening, leaves the episodes hanging with new information, cliff hangers, etc. This form in itself keeps listeners engaged – online through social media, chatting about it at work (it’s a “water cooler” type), until the next episode. I could go on and on about how the simple structure and form of the podcast keeps listeners engaged (I wrote my NYU senior thesis on the topic), but I won’t bore you with the details. Conclusion – its strategic.
  • Don’t let the above discredit the actual story. The story itself is enthralling. It’s about a 1999 Baltimore murder – race, love, teenagers, law, etc. are all involved. If you’ve seen HBO’s True Detective, then you’d understand how you find yourself entrenched in a story where there are a lot of blank spaces – left unfilled because someone either died, or just because there is simply no explanation.

My question is, why the sudden shift to podcasts? Of course, you could put this same plot, story, characters into a TV series, and it wouldn’t get a quarter of the viewers as Serial gets listeners. But why is that? I wonder if it has something to do with podcasts being a very mobile form of media. As we’re becoming progressively mobile and multi-tasking, maybe podcasts provides a medium which we can be entertained without having to sit down and really tune in (but that’s not to say you dont have to fully listen when listening to an episode of Serial).

Podcasts aren’t new, but Serial begs the argument that they are becoming mainstream. Or is it a renaissance? 

Like I said, if you put all of the elements of the same story into a TV series, or movie, I highly doubt it would be as popular (oh god please don’t ever do that). Today we are inundated by images (you see advertisements, signs, photos, pictures, banners, etc. daily). Perhaps what makes Serial so interesting is its ability to tell the story in such a explicit, detailed way, without being visual at all. Listeners are essentially forced to listen (a dying skill today if you ask me). Listen to the details, what the characters are saying, how they are speaking, the context… Thus engaging listeners even moreso than they would be engaged than watching a straight off TV show on the same topic.

At it’s core really, the Serial story isn’t anything new or newsworthy. Law & Order / Law & Order SVU / Criminal Minds… essentially any crime/murder/mystery TV show has all done it before: an ex lover is wrongly accused of killing, detectives must get down to the truth. It’s that simple. What’s not simple about Serial is the attention to details and the intricacies that crime dramas typically generalize for its audiences. A crime drama will say, “the suspect’s call logs do not match the timeline or cell towers”. Serial says, “the suspect was a x place which did match one cell tower, however, it could be at fault, but also was the suspect on the phone? What does being at x place really mean?” You see what I’m saying? The detail is incredible – which is why I think listeners are addicted because they have become a part of the narrative – coming to their own assumptions and ideas of the case as we are given new clues every Thursday.

Another topic that I’ve seen has been prompting conversations is this topic of race. To sum it up, the “wrongfully accused” Adnan Syed who is serving a life sentence for supposedly killing his ex girlfriend Hae Lee. He was convicted after his friend at the time, Jay corroborated with the Baltimore PD and admitted to helping Adnan bury the body, and giving the police other information and eventually testifying in court (if you don’t know Serial – all of this information is up in the air since the true story is what the series is trying to figure out). If you didn’t catch on, Adnan is Muslim Pakistani, Jay is African-American, and the deceased Hae Lee is Korean.

But why is that important? Well, there’s a case to be made that the trial itself invoked the race card. The start witness, Jay, was a non-stereotypical black guy (he bordered on being a punk / alternative guy who listened to rock and roll and was described as so from his friends) in Baltimore who was heavily cross examined by Syed’s lawyer – a white woman – I’d imagine that didn’t go over well with the jury. Adnan was a Muslim Pakistani with very strict parents who didn’t know about his Korean girlfriend, his pot smoking, etc. However, he was a stand up guy, great student, athlete, and a charmer. All in all, race isn’t important… until it is important.

It’s times like these where I still wish I was a Media Culture and Communications student at NYU – preparing my thesis topic, because this would be so fun to write a paper on.

If you’re already a Serial fan, I dare you to dive down the rabbit hole that is the reddit forum on Serial. I spent a few hours reading through some theories already – my mind is still reeling. People get REALLY into it.

If you haven’t gotten into the show, congratulations. But I challenge you to give one episode a listen. Plus, its easy especially if you have an iphone/ipad/itunes. Get at it. Tell me what you think.

In any case, would love to discuss any thoughts, opinions (popular or unpopular), theories, etc. Also, unpopular opinion but could this all be a huge plug for Best Buy? Kidding…

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