Why you should listen to Serial Season Three

The podcast, Serial, just launched their third season this week after a pretty long radio silence (pun kinda intended). I’ve been wondering why they weren’t releasing another season, because the first two seasons were very successful. For me too – I devoured both seasons when they came out, though I liked the second a bit less than the first.

Now it turns out that they had translated their success into time: They’ve spent more than a year researching for this new season. And it’s probably their most ambitious yet.

Breaking Their MO

See, they’ve chosen a rather different focal point for this season than for the last two. Serial’s tagline is “One story told week by week”. In the first season, that story was the murder case against Adnan Syed, a very complicated case with a lot of open questions – not least whether the man who’s been spending his entire adult life in prison is actually guilty.

In the second season, the story was of the soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who left his military base in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban, released, and then court martialed. The second season seemed to be less popular than the first, and that makes total sense to me: it was a much less focused story, trying to indict the way America recruit soldiers, the command structure of the US army, and the public’s response to Bergdahl. Where the first season was circling around one story, slowly developing and refining the narrative, adding more and more layers and complexity to the narrative, the second was more of a tangle of roots, shooting out in many directions, crisscrossing each other and radiating out from that second story.

Which is why I was a little skeptical when I heard what this third season was all about. See, in the third season, the tagline has changed. This week it’s “One courthouse told week by week”. And the focal point is the Justice Center in Cleveland.

Doing the justice system justice

After the first season, Sarah Koenig, the host of the show, were often asked what that case said about the American justice system. But to Koenig, the case wasn’t really a good representation of most of what goes on in American courts. For one thing, it actually went to trial and a long one at that. For another, the defendant had no priors. For a third, the defendant had a privately paid attorney.

Thus, Koenig and her team decided to go make that portrait of the American legal system – not by focusing on one case, but by focusing on everything that went on in a courthouse. They spent more than a year going to the justice center, recording from within courtrooms and interviewing people involved in cases. In each episode, they’re going to focus on one facet of the courthouse, like why so many cases end up with plea bargains or the role of judges in sentencing.

And after listening to the teaser and the first two episodes, I have to say, it really works. But it’s not a pretty picture they’re painting.

Judging the judges

The first episode is the most straightforward of the two episodes. It details the case of a woman charged with assaulting a policeman. But right from the start, we get Koenig’s take on the case: the woman was groped multiple times by a couple of guys at a bar, then assaulted by a bunch of people in the bar. When she hit the policeman, she was defending herself against the onslaught of multiple others who were kicking and beating her. I won’t tell you the rest of the story, but I will say: when it’s over, the defense attorney, the judge and the prosecutor will all feel like justice was served, while Koenig – and with her, the listener – will be less than impressed with what passes for justice in this case.

The second is a more convoluted episode. It is a portrait of one of the judges in the courthouse, and through him, of the power and authority of judges in this system. The episode especially deals with the rather capricious and subjective way judges – this one in particular – metes out sentences. It’s a disturbing look at a world in which the idiosyncrasies of one person trumps evidence and rationality when deciding how to bring someone back to the straight and narrow.

Stories with personality

One of the great strengths of Serial was always the way it told its stories. Taped interviews and scenes combined with narration tells the story, while Koenig frames the story with personal reflections and gentle editorializing. Without forcing her views on you, Koenig’s personality shines throughout the podcast, orienting you in the sometimes confusing stories she tells.

That is even more important here. Where the stories at the core of the first two seasons would have been fascinating even if told by a less able storyteller, this season absolutely hinges on the ability of Koenig and her team to bring scattered stories and fragmented impressions together into a cohesive narrative. And from what I’ve seen so far, it seems like they may very well succeed.

Go listen!

Which means I can lay my initial worries to the side and recommend Serial Season Three. If you like stories from real life, or if you want a look into what goes on in an American courtroom, this is solid stuff. If you don’t know Serial, this is not the worst place to jump om, though you might also want to go back to the first season. If you do that, I think I’d recommend skipping the second season at first, going back to it if you want more after listening to this current season.

Meanwhile, I know that this is my first post about podcasting, and I usually write about something completely different. My justification is threefold: One, I have always said that this blog is about storytelling, and Serial is nothing if not storytelling. Two, I think Serial has a lot to offer in terms of inspiration for games and fiction. Third, I write about it because I want to.

As such, don’t be surprised to see more posts on podcasts in the future. I’ll try to get more of my regular content to you as well.

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