What is it about the murder-mystery podcast Serial that makes it so gripping? This question has come up in conversations a lot lately, mostly with other journalists who, like me, instantly got hooked on the This American Life spinoff.
Serial is a weekly podcast that revisits the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high schooler and the man who was convicted of killing her. Each week, reporter Sarah Koenig takes listeners with her as she investigates the crime, the court case, and the characters involved in an attempt to sort out what really happened.
The story, it seems, is a whodunnit. The central question: Is Adnan Syed, in fact, guilty of killing Hae Min Lee?
But Serial is also a story about storytelling. Listeners ride along with Koenig each week as she does her investigative work. We hear the reportorial leads that don't pan out. We're privy to (at least some of) her questions and doubts. And from this format another key question emerges: Is it okay to be enthralled by all this? A person was murdered. In real life. And yet Serial's fans—is it weird to call them fans?—gather around the show like it's Twin Peaks.
Episodic television, of course, took its form at least in part from episodic literature—which in turn influenced what's known today as narrative or longform journalism. The serialized novel was one of the defining features of the 19th-century newspaper. Serialized non-fiction, too, has a long tradition in American journalism. Truman Capote's best seller In Cold Blood first appeared as a four-part serial in The New Yorker in 1965. All this is to say that it's not as though Serial is breaking any new ground with regard to format.
"It's just telling a longer story," the show's executive producer Julie Snyder told me. "And so serializing it kind of felt like it was a normal thing unless you wanted a really long 14-hour story or something, you know? You're going to have to break it out into chapters like the way a book would."