The hype around Serial

If you listen to podcasts in any capacity, you’re unlikely to have missed hearing about the new spin-off from This American Life called Serial. It’s a documentary series focusing on one story and following it for as long as it takes, rather than the multi-storied This American Life style episodes. And whereas TAL is all about the radio with podcasts attached on the side, Serial is designed to be a podcast first and foremost – variable lengths, both in individual episodes and potentially seasons as well.

The hype that surrounds this podcast has been absolutely staggering. There are podcasts about the podcast, spoilerific and spoiler-free. There are blogs reviewing and highlighting the facts from each episode. There are discussion forums and endless debates about the rights and wrongs, and my Twitter stream has been filled with people literally counting the days until the next episode arrives.

I listened to the first seven episodes and thought it was good. The editing and production values are fantastic, the storytelling captivating and the presenter inquisitive and pretty well-balanced, considering the subject matter.

And the subject matter? That’s where it falls down for me. This first series tracks a murder case – a teenage girl was killed, and her ex-boyfriend jailed for the crime. It happened fifteen years ago, he has always professed his innocence, and some of the evidence against him does seem a bit lacking.

After seven episodes, I came to a halt. Half of me wants to listen on but the other half doesn’t. It makes me feel grubby. The premise, at first seeming innovative and exciting, now feels misguided and unsettling.

Serial is a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season. We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.

These are real people’s lives. Everyone that talks to the show is obviously comfortable with the format, but there are plenty who must have been affected by the murder that don’t get to interact. The poor murdered girl’s parents don’t get much of a say in how many people are now obsessed with the case.

The length of the podcast is a mystery, as is the end goal. Is there going to be an angle of vying for the prisoner’s innocence, for overturning the case? Or is this all just a bit exploitative, dragging everyone through the case again with little to show for it at the end?

What if they never get to the bottom of the case? As a podcast that has really leaned on it’s storytelling capabilities, I’m wondering if they’re going to end up with a tale that just has no end. There’s going to be a lot of people left unsatisfied if that does happen. I’ve already seen complaints that it feels a bit wandering now, getting further away from the crux of the case. Serial never promised a definitive answer, but there has to be something to wrap things up, doesn’t there?

At first, I was on board the Serial train, but the longer it goes on and the bigger it gets, the more people obsess over the intricate details of these people and their lives, the less inclined I am to listen on. There should absolutely be space to investigate real life situations, particularly if it involves righting a wrong, but at what point does it cross the line from investigative journalism to just plain seedy entertainment?