‘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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Total Affair of the Heart (Episode 3)

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Even though I wouldn’t describe this as a particularly Noah heavy episode, there was something about episode three that just kept bringing it back to Noah’s character for me.

When we’re on Noah’s side of the perspective, it seems to be all about him: about his goals, his family, his lies. It’s fitting, in a way, he’s very focused on himself, even when he’s focusing on other people. When he’s fucking his wife he whispers a “don’t wake up,” which I suppose could be its own brand of sexy if it wasn’t in a series titled after his wrongdoings.

His side of it seems to just scream midlife crisis: Noah focusing on how he said all the right things, and it’s not easy for him to step outside his marriage. Allison’s side brings depth to her character, a sense that she is somehow just floating through the world and Noah is a wrinkle, ill-advised or no, to the perfect life her husband is trying to iron out. But Noah is the guy who wouldn’t even have gone to the town meeting and fooled around with another woman if it weren’t for the in-laws that are smothering him and the kids who are ungrateful and every little other part of his life that grates on him in that moment.

Though I complain about Noah, that moment when he finds his book in the library is heartbreaking to me, in a way. It was the perfect reflection on how he’s at a place where he’s not feeling appreciated, and Helen can’t make everything good, and the book is a relic of what was, what could’ve been and what is. And then Allison shows up, flirty as she always is to him, and suddenly he’s feeling checked out again.

Well someone wants to pull me off the shelf and crack me open
Well someone wants to pull me off the shelf and crack me open

And his lies grow. In a way they don’t really have to, but then again he’s not very quick on his feet. The only person who seems to know (or be snarky enough to call him on it) is Allison’s boss. I kind of love how Dominic West doesn’t feel the need to play Noah with any sort of likability, so much as an understanding of how he might be feeling trapped and under water. Which brings me to my sidebars:

Sidebars:

  • Sometimes the visual puns on the show just kill me. Noah’s drowning in stress and we open on him swimming. There’s definitely something fishy about those docks, huh? They just keep going.
  • On Allison’s boss: I’m really hoping his a (literal) red herring because if he is the killer or the victim it would just feel like a cop out. He’s got a great thing going, being the foil creeping in the background; the only one who engages enough with both Noah and Allison to really notice what’s happening, and he’s clearly got an ax to grind. But I’d be more interested if his distinct way of blending in and sticking out when he needs to is a foil for the relationship, not the crime we’re still waiting on details for.
  • This book agent seems like he sucks at his job. Despite calling Noah on his lack of originality, he does not seems too boring to say “no but seriously dude what else are you bringing to the table?”
  • Whitney is the perfect mix of annoying teenage trope and believable teenage girl I want to root for.
  • And as much as I hate Grandma throwing the money in Noah’s face, I feel like if she wrote a book I would read it. As we saw in Allison’s perspective last week at the party, there’s certainly more snark and heart to be had from Grandma.