What’s missing from Serial’s second season?
The first season of Serial spread like a plague, contracted through text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts. The victims of this viral podcast provided support for one another through Reddit and knowing glances on the G train. It was the fastest podcast to hit five million downloads and streams through iTunes. As of February 2015, the twelve episodes in the first season shared a collective 68 million downloads, with countless more listeners exposed when Pandora started streaming episodes in November.
Needless to say, it was a phenomenon, and Serial’s producers were in the unenviable position of figuring out a follow-up. (You don’t become the most popular podcast in the world and not have a second season.) In Vulture’s behind-the-scenes article on the making of season two, you can see Sarah Koenig and her fellow producers grapple with the question of what to do next:
For Serial, the question quickly became what to do next. Another true crime? Something … bigger? Perhaps Koenig & Co. were overthinking it, trying to outflank a possible backlash… or at least the heightened scrutiny that comes with a follow-up: how not to repeat yourself, how to surprise, how to do something different, maybe better?
Unhappy with the half-baked ideas they were working on, they chose to partner with Page One, and more specifically, Mark Boal, a journalist who also wrote the scripts for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Based on that, Serial’s choice to focus on the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and held for five years before being released in a controversial prisoner swap, is unsurprising. Boal had already recorded twenty-five hours of interviews with Bergdahl, and the team at Page One had performed countless hours of research and journalism. It was a head start for the beleaguered Serial team, who, according to Vulture, had already made a commitment to their advertising partners and Pandora that they would launch a second season in 2015.
This tortured origin story might help explain why the show switched to a fortnightly schedule in-between episodes four and five. Previously billed as “one story told week by week,” Serial had lost the central tenet of its existence.
The announcement confirmed what many internet commentators had already observed: the second season of Serial is a hot mess. There is, truthfully, no story here. The episodes serve as interesting background information on Bergdahl, the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military at large, but there is very little to hold it together. There is no tension at the center of this story, which leaves the details informing nothing, building towards no larger understanding.
There are a few questions floating around season two, any of which provide interesting tension. Was Sgt. Bergdahl justified in leaving his base? Should we consider him a traitor? Do his years as a P.O.W. serve as punishment enough? All of these questions feed into the larger question that Koenig hints at — who is Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl?
But as much as Koenig may want to answer that question, she’s hindered by one major handicap: she never actually talked to Bergdahl. In contrast, her phone calls with Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer who was the main “character” of season one, were such a huge part of every episode. Koenig was investigating whether or not Syed was innocent. She could question Syed about everything, and this, in turn, informed the entire series. The central tension of the story — is this man innocent? — was played out in those interviews.
The taped interviews with Bergdahl, conducted by Boal, are nothing like the phone calls with Syed. They were background interviews, never meant to be consumed by the public. Boal is not asking hard questions. And because he’s in the past, he can’t ask Bergdahl specific questions about the material that Serial’s episodes are trying to cover.
Would the ability to interview Bergdahl now, in the present, single-handedly fix all of Serial’s woes? Obviously, we’ll never know, but I speculate that much of what is missing from season two of Serial — a core tension, a central question — could be fixed by the most simple act of journalism: interviewing your subject.
But not being able to interview Bergdahl is just one part an even larger problem for Serial’s second season. The fact that Page One did so much of the initial research — enough, at least, to propel us through the first few episodes—leaves Koenig as nothing more than a narrator. In season one, Koenig was investigating. She dug up old Best Buy architectural plans. She tested the state’s timeline by driving around Baltimore. She tracked down the woman who could’ve been Syed’s alibi. In season two, she’s summarizing Boal’s interview with Bergdahl and Afghan reporter Sami Yosafzai’s interviews with Taliban guards.
To put it another way: In season one, we listened every week as Koenig performed acts of journalism and investigation. In season two, we listen every week as Koenig compiles and presents other people’s reporting. What’s missing, then, from season two of Serial is not a single act of journalism, but the ability to witness acts of journalism.
For the Serial team, I can only imagine one piece of advice, passed down from many a math teacher: show your work.