Return of the Serial thriller
The US podcast was a cultural phenomenon in 2014. But will its new season catch fire
Published 16/12/2015 | 07:00
Grandiose claims were made last year about Kim Kardashian's nude shots "breaking the internet", but the return of Serial - the insanely popular American podcast - actually did break the internet. Well, part of it.
Within 30 minutes of Season 2 Episode 1 going online on Thursday, serialpodcast.org had crashed (the show is also available on iTunes and the Pandora streaming service). Such were the numbers of devotees keen to download and re-engage with Serial, it's now a bona fide cultural phenomenon since first airing last October.
Narrated and produced by Sarah Koenig, partly inspired by Dickens, the 12-episode podcast began as a spin-off of the legendary PBS show This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass. Koenig wanted to do a long-form, true-life narrative. As Glass put it, the aim was "the same experience you get from a great TV series... like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while driving."
Season 1 investigated the killing of Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed was found guilty of murder. But he'd pleaded innocence, and Koenig began a cold-case investigation, including many hours interviewing Syed. Enough doubt was cast for Maryland Court of Special Appeals, last February, to allow Syed an appeal.
Serial's figures are mind-blowing. Season 1 has now been downloaded over 100 million times. It was ranked No. 1 on iTunes even before release and held their top spot for three months.
It became the first podcast to win a prestigious Peabody Award for broadcasting, and has founded a cottage industry, with other podcasts (Crime Writers on Serial, The Serial Serial) and parodies on gold-standard comedy shows like Saturday Night Live.
It's been called "podcasting's first breakout hit" and a "new genre of audio storytelling". So what's its secret?
Maynooth University lecturer Jennifer O'Meara has written an academic paper titled 'Like Movies for Radio: Media Convergence and the Serial Podcast Sensation'. She believes its length and stately tempo played a big part.
Jennifer says, "Serial provided so much detail, it allowed us get immersed in that world. And it tapped into how we now consume media. We're used to 'binge-watching' TV, and the extended structure encouraged fans to obsess over it."
Jennifer also feels the interviews between Koenig and Syed (conducted over a prison phone line) were crucial.
"There was something quite unnerving," she says, "about hearing him talk at length - without really knowing if he is guilty."
Season 2, which goes live every Thursday (11am our time), makes a dramatic shift, from obscure domestic crime to a notorious incident from the War on Terror.
Koenig delves into the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier who left his post in Afghanistan in June 2009, was captured and tortured by the Taliban for five years, before being released in exchange for five Taliban. Bergdahl was then charged by the Army with desertion; the case is ongoing.
The situation quickly turned from political triumph to nightmare for Barack Obama. John McCain has called for prison for Bergdahl; Donald Trump - quelle surprise - said the "no-good traitor… should have been executed".
A lot, then, for Koenig and her team to sink their teeth into, as they investigate why Bergdahl quit his unit.
"To get the full picture," Koenig explains, "you need to go very small into one person's life - and very big into the war in Afghanistan."
She's teamed up with Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, whose extensive interviews with Bergdahl form the basis of Season 2. But will this Serial catch fire, the way its predecessor did?
Early reviews are good. Mashable praised the first episode's "compelling original sources". The UK Independent called it "gripping, confident storytelling".
Irish journalist Danielle Barron was a big fan of Season 1 (especially Koenig's "soothing tones - she could read the alphabet and I'd listen"), but isn't so sure this one will be as successful.
Citing "difficult second album syndrome", she adds: "When I read the blurb my first thought was Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Will non-Americans get as invested with this story, especially when it isn't a cut-and-dried 'did he or didn't he'? But I'll definitely be listening."
Either way, Serial has already had a seismic influence on media.
"It proved podcasts are a viable form of media," Jennifer says.
"And they're an alternative to the huge quantity of visual images we come into contact with; they create a kind of audio intimacy with listeners."
Perfect podcasts: The other must-listen radio shows
This American Life: The original radio-lover's podcast fix, NPR's compelling show mixes fact, fiction, anecdotes and real-life drama and does it all with an enviably light touch.
In Our Time: Resolutely highbrow, this BBC show explores key ideas in history, culture, science and philosophy
Welcome to Night Vale: Horror fans love this drama, set in a small American town. A recent episode was recorded live in Dublin
The Moth: A simple concept - true stories, told to an audience - has proved a hit