Serial: Why Is It So Popular?

That's how Serial is supposed to get you: The feeling of true waiting -- something that is lost in our digital culture where all things are instantaneously present simultaneously -- is a novel sensation. Pardon the pun.
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Serial is the hottest new podcast that's working everybody up into a lather. It's the number one podcast not only in the United States, but also Australia, and the United Kingdom. If you haven't started listening to it, start listening to it.

Serial follows the conventions of sequential storytelling -- conventions that came out of the Victorian era, when books were issued as installments. For instance, each chapter of Great Expectations arrived to the public simply as a link in an ongoing narrative -- its own self-contained unit with elements of cliffhanger suspense built in. Only later were the bits collected and put together in book form (and this was simply to make money twice).

That's how Serial is supposed to get you: The feeling of true waiting -- something that is lost in our digital culture where all things are instantaneously present simultaneously -- is a novel sensation. Pardon the pun.

I got to the show late, by then it had already been in its seventh episode and would soon release its eight. One of my old childhood friends, a successful screenwriter, had Facebook-ed that the seventh was the best (it is!). A rule breaker at heart, I leapt into that seventh episode just to see if it was worthwhile. I promptly got hooked, and proceeded to listen to every single episode in sequence. It was truly addictive.

There's a reason why I did this that moves beyond entertainment: I was interested in craft. What makes this particular murder mystery so compelling that it has touched a nerve across the nation and around the English speaking world? Is it form? Is it craft? Is it technique? These were the questions on my mind as I listened. I wanted to take whatever I could purloin and see if I could make it my own.

Serial is basically a mystery with a murder of a young Korean American girl Hae Min Lee by her Pakistani American ex-boyfriend Adnan. The reporter is the voice that stands in as the detective figure -- the creature of "ratiocination," to borrow the term Edgar Alan Poe applied to his own stories of murder, mystery, intrigue... In other words, the narrator Sarah Koenig is the figure who thinks, ponders, puzzles, wonders.

And the story has many of the classic features of a mystery: It's a whodunit that combines the pleasures of a police and courtroom procedural. The twist is that the crime supposedly has been solved and we get those events retold. We already know how it ends: Adnan, the ex-boyfriend, has been found guilty. He is talking to us from behind bars, where he has languished for well over a decade.

One of the big critiques that came out among my politically correct friends is that the story is racial -- that it exploits certain tried and true racial stereotypes: Adnan is described in terms of Othello -- a moor. In other words, he is a violent Muslim, someone who can be imagined as black. Then there's all the exploitation of the model minority myth: the perfect Asian girl who is in every way an ideal daughter and student must die at the hands of the criminal darky. I won't go into any other detail about this line of thinking, because it came out here.

I can only say that it annoyed me at the time, because it was an easy argument to make. In fact, it can be applied to just about any book dealing with racialized characters. In this sense, this line of thinking is extremely limited. It still doesn't entirely address the popularity of the show. After all, there are tons of racist things out there that never gain traction, that never make it into the spotlight.

So I began to wonder if it was about the serialized form itself... if it was the fact of sequencing that made things interesting. That one, I threw out the window. After all, I enjoyed it even though I had started in the middle. In fact, though the show is designed to be sequential, it's not rigidly sequential in the way that comic books move from panel to panel. You can pretty much jump into any episode and bounce around that way, and not get confused. In this sense, the pretense of form -- that it is a serial -- is simply a pretense. This is entirely different from the serializations that happened during the Victorian era, and certainly different from the radio dramas that are its immediate predecessors.

What I came to realize is that it is the narrator -- the journalist stand-in for the detective voice -- that is the true element that is addictive. And in fact, it is the way that Sarah Koenig keeps asking questions, finding dead ends, following up leads that are dry. One website dwelled on the numerous times that Sarah Koenig keeps resorting to the same language -- the same stock phrases -- to express her confusion.

This makes her, not Adnan, the most fully developed character of the show -- the stroke of genius that keeps us compelled. Adnan is in other words, just the chump in the cage. He is a voice that arrives as simple snippets for her convenience. Sarah Koenig is the voice that curates him, that displays his interesting-ness for the world's amusement.

I think this is the clue to unlocking the mystery: It is the befuddlement that Koenig must return to over and over again. And she is invested in this befuddlement, for if she could really resolve that befuddlement, she would not have a show at all -- or at least, she would only have a fragment of a show. Even if we get to touch the holy grail -- a real conclusive moment in which she figures it all out and explains all the elements of the show -- it is the befuddlement that is so crucial for the story to move.

Koenig is in some senses a better detective than the classic ones -- Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes -- precisely because those sleuths are self-assured. We know they will prevail. In contrast, Koenig seems genuinely baffled. This is the stroke of genius: It is the elaboration of the speaker who is herself elaborating a story that really is the whole point of the show. In other words, Serial is something more ancient than a mystery novel or a Victorian serial of only a hundred odd years ago... it is a dance of the seven veils. It is a story that must be told every night in a different way to stay the hand of the executioner. It is just good storytelling.

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