Like many people, I got hooked on Serial about halfway through the first season when I had heard a bunch of ads for it on NPR, and diligently listened to the rest of the season as Sarah Koenig, worked her way through the story.
I just finished listening to Serial‘s second season, and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been the same level of cultural obsession with it. It seems like everyone was talking and buzzing about how Season 1 would end; this time, it feels like it’s been overlooked.
I really like long-form journalism: stories that really require you to sit down and read through, not because they’re in depth or well researched (although that helps), but because it helps me think better. When done right, they explore something that I probably would never think about on a normal day, but find that they have ramifications that impact how I see things.
I was let down by Serial’s first season, to be honest. The story reached an abrupt halt, with Koenig stumbling over whether she believed his story or not. It was a fun ride, but it ran into the limitations of covering something that’s unresolved: you get to catch everyone up, but when you hit the present, you can’t really report too much more on it.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Serial was set up as this sort of narrative storytelling experiment that felt as though it had a beginning middle and end: it didn’t, although they’re now updating Adnan Syed’s case bit by bit as new developments happen.
I think that’s why I didn’t pick up on Serial’s second season until it was over. The focus this time around was on a surprisingly high-profile case:Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who walked away from his OP on June 30th. I listened to the first episode, found it interesting, but didn’t really look into it again until recently.
I went to a military school (as a civilian), and studied military history, and since then, I’ve become friends with a number of people who work in and around the military. Bergdahl’s case has been a source of discussion across most of them, and I remember the initial news of his recovery and the backlash against him – many weren’t happy about it.
I listened through Season 2 in the last couple of weeks, and what’s struck me is the podcast’s (and how longform journalism) can really take the time to tease out the story: that’s exactly what’s done here. This is journalism at its best: taking the time to really cover a story, from the initial impact of the soldiers sent out on patrol to the larger geo-political problems that his capture caused in the general war effort. When all is said and done, it’s an incredible story, one that clarified and at points, reinforced some of my thoughts on the matter, all the while providing some context. I had fallen in the ‘He’s suffered enough’ camp before listening, and now, I’m not sure that I believe that.
I think the subject matter here worked quite a bit more than Syed’s story: Bergdahl’s story wasn’t so much about whether or not he should be prosecuted: it was more to understand why and what happened. Unlike Syed’s case, there’s a good resolution to it, with his current legal situation an additional chapter.
Along they way, they explore some interesting, and important topics, none of which are easy: what is the value of human life in war? It’s an easy thing to abstractly think about, but listening to the various people talk about the decisions that they made during the entire story, it’s clear that this is a complicated situation, and the Serial team did a good job pulling it together. Already, I’m really eager to see what they’ll talk about for their next season, which will apparently be launching sometime this spring.
On a personal level, the podcast has become this really aspirational thing for me, as a journalist. I like researching and writing in depth articles – the Expanse and Star Wars ones from last year were certainly influenced by the type of reporting done there, and there’s other topics that I’ve been seeing with new eyes after listening to this (and seeking out and reading other stories as well), and motivated to write and research accordingly.