After five episodes, the worst thing that can be said about Serial, a new podcast led by This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, is that the next episode isn't yet online. It will post Thursday. I will listen immediately. If the rest of the inaugural season's episodes were released together, like House of Cards, I'd consume them in one sitting, foregoing sunshine, sleep, and human contact until all episodes were exhausted. That's how I binge-watched much of The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. At the time, I never imagined I'd ever binge-listen to radio.
Now there are four podcasts I can't quit.
Audio aficionados are likely already familiar with This American Life and Radiolab, both of which consistently produce some of America's very best journalism. With their smart phone apps, the full archives are available to stream. Lately, I've also fallen for a remarkable interview-driven podcast, the singular Love+Radio. I've managed to limit myself to a couple of episodes a day from their archives, but only because, like the other podcasts I've mentioned, they produce standalone episodes that encompass the full arc of a particular story.
In contrast, Serial tackles one story over the course of many installments–roughly as many as encompass a season of an HBO drama such as True Detective, the show to which Serial is often compared because the first serial Koenig has tackled is the story of Adnan Syed, a high school student convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Did he do it? Or has he been wrongly jailed for a crime he didn't commit? Each episode is an installment in an ongoing attempt to figure that out.
The producers themselves don't know how their story ends: They approach the subject as intensely curious storytellers, not crusaders for the accused or the deceased.
A full review is impossible without revealing plot twists and turns that would spoil the pleasure of the show, so I won't offer one, except to say that its many sources are handled with a deftness you'd expect of This American Life. These are nuanced, frank, respectful interviews that allow everyone's voices and perspectives to come through, illuminating key aspects of the story and giving an uncommonly intimate look at a subculture rarely rendered with such verisimilitude. The pacing is fantastic, too: Every week I'm left wanting more.
Stepping back, however, I'm as excited about what will happen after this season of Serial ends, for the show's subject isn't always going to be murder, a theme with inherent drama, but one that is well-trod in fiction and nonfiction alike. This American Life's archive goes back to 1995. I've listened to every episode as the show grew into an increasingly polished purveyor of top-notch narrative nonfiction. One high point among many is The Giant Pool of Money, proof that a sophisticated explanation of the 2008 financial crisis could be conveyed to a mass audience, so long as a whole hour could be dedicated to the necessary storytelling. What narrative nonfiction feats will be possible in Serial's future, as Koenig is permitted the luxury of story arcs that can unfold over 10 or 20 installments? The space for ambition and potential for innovation is great.
In an era when many are enamored of the conceit that they can promise "everything you need to know" about a subject in one list or chart or interview, Serial is poised to show through podcasts what HBO demonstrates with its dramas: Some stories are too complicated for CliffsNotes and reward sustained attention. And unlike the next season of True Detective, you can enjoy Serial while you drive.
If you're new to this format and want to give it a try, here are a few exceptional episodes of the podcasts mentioned above, though I could've easily chosen different batches.
This American Life