‘Serial’ Season 2 Checkpoint: Is it working?

When Sarah Koenig released the first episode of Serial season 2, Beyoncé-style, many were thrown for a loop. Not because Koenig announced that she would be focusing on Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. private who got kidnapped and held by the Taliban for five years after going DUSTWUN from his base—she was spotted leaving a military hearing for Bergdahl months before the season was released. It threw people because, what was the crime?

Serial rose to fevered prominence during its first season, as the community of listeners on the Internet took to the case of “wrongly-convicted” Adnan Syed like a dog with a bone. Koenig and her team overturned established timelines, found new evidence, and expanded the scope of the case far beyond what it seemed to have been 18 years prior. All that hype was infectious, and fans quickly took to their own podcasts and forums to investigate themselves, and further support Syed’s appeal.

set_bowe_bergdahl_serial_640But Bergdahl had no such mystery. Episode one explains exactly what happened, and why it’s arguably his own damn fault. So what’s the point?

But six episodes later, one thing is clearer and clearer to me: Picking the Bergdahl case is the smartest move Koenig and her team could’ve taken.

The problem with Serial‘s notoriety was that it was a double-edged sword; people were hailing anything in the true-crime family as the successor to Serial, the next place to get your fix. But Serial isn’t trying to be a true-crime podcast. It’s trying to be Koenig’s own personal echo of This American Life, only this time it would be “one story, told week by week” instead of an intense microcosm. Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 2.27.31 PMBy immediately and so clearly switching gears, Koenig has avoided (hopefully) that Serial will ever be just “that true-crime podcast everyone’s talking about.”

And in the meantime, she’s made something to be proud of: Whether you agree with Bergdahl or not, turning his story over and over, examining it from all its social, political, and economic facets is powerful. I don’t find much of his rationale that appealing, but the context for the decision he made and the consequences that came out of it have proven to be well worth diving into. Bergdahl’s thought-process may be maddening. But the narrative around it is rich. With Bergdahl’s trial currently underway (and largely behind military court doors) Koenig is making sure that when the verdict comes down, people have some way to contextualize what that means.

Though its second season suffers from Koenig’s limited access to Bergdahl compared to her largely (at least as far as the listener is concerned) unfettered access Syed, Koenig’s decisive move to not a mystery but a story has been a rewarding journey. I’m looking forward to see what happens next.

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