Fourteen months ago, podcasts were on the margins of entertainment media. They were no longer new, having originated in the early 2000s, and seemed to be going the way of Betamax and MySpace.
Then came along Sarah Koenig, already a Peabody award-winning audio journalist and veteran of ABC News and the New York Times, but one who was satisfied spending most of her time working on a fringy, vaguely defined product: the audio documentary. Koenig had been contacted in 2013 by someone who had been personally involved in a murder case that Koenig had covered years earlier, and who asked her to do some more snooping about the case. After about a year of investigating the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, allegedly committed by the girl’s ex-boyfriend, “Serial” was born.
“Serial,” a 12-episode podcast analyzing the details of the murder and exploring its implications quickly became the most-downloaded podcast of all time, effectively revitalizing the genre. The first season offered a bizarre sort of escapism in addition to the suspense and excitement that is to be expected of any type of true crime story. For current college students, it allowed us to reminisce about and even romanticize the short few years in the late 1990s when business as usual in America was similar to the way it is now, or at least still recognizable, but the Internet-connected devices that pervade everything we do in the 2010s were not yet omnipresent. In the tradition of both “In Cold Blood” and “Dateline,” this murder story was enjoyable largely because of the seeming simplicity of the characters’ lives just before it took place.
“Serial” Season 2, which began in early December and currently has four episodes out, has a different kind of appeal, a risk for Koenig after Serial’s initial success. The story in the new season is that of Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army soldier who was held captive for five years by the Taliban after allegedly deserting his platoon in 2009.
This new season should no doubt have wide appeal, but perhaps not to the exact same audience as the first season. For one, most of the charm of the murder case of “Serial” Season 1 came from the fact that the story’s characters were not famous or exceptional in any discernable way — they were middle-class American immigrants in Baltimore, attending an average high school. The story was also largely apolitical; much of the story suggested racial profiling, but not in any controversial way.
Bergdahl’s story, on the other hand, was being covered by all major media outlets before it was even announced that it would be featured on “Serial.” Bergdahl is essentially a household name, especially since the US Government traded five Taliban members being held in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl’s freedom in 2014. Serial’s second season is initially slower-moving than the first season, but the first episode ends with a sound byte of Koenig’s interviewee in the second episode: a member of the Taliban. This demonstrates what might be the source of Koenig’s ability to create compelling stories like few others: she takes her investigation to a near-ridiculous level, doing everything possible to satisfy her curiosity, after infecting her listeners with the same level of curiosity. This persistence and dedication was what made the first season great, and the second season does not let up.
After the initial explanation of Bergdahl’s case, the second, third and fourth episodes of “Serial” Season 2 have focused largely on Bergdahl’s experience while being held captive. These episodes are fascinating, and Koenig gives a great explanation of all the necessarily political context, but they are difficult to listen to. After listening to the four episode that have been released, it’s hard to feel like Bergdahl should be punished for deserting, even if he is guilty. He has been through enough punishment.
Ultimately, Koenig’s attempt of a different sort of story from Serial’s first season was a brave and smart decision. The change works for her, and her somehow both sympathetic but journalistically responsible rendering of the facts is just as fascinating to hear. The first season of “Serial” would be difficult for anyone to follow, but the second season is definitely worth your time.