Over the past two months, the “Serial” podcast has become a breakout hit, inspiring watercooler talk and Twitter chatter while supplanting broadcast networks’ slate of TV shows as perhaps the most-discussed episodic offering of this fall. (The 10th episode came out this week.)
“Serial” tells the story of Hae Min Lee, a high school student who was murdered by strangulation 15 years ago; her body was found in a shallow grave at a large Baltimore park, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and convicted.
Last year a friend of Syed’s, who believes him innocent, contacted “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig, asking her to look into the case. Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, became intrigued by what, in the first “Serial” episode (which aired on “This American Life”), she called a Shakespearean mashup: The story involved “young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge,” she noted.
Listeners quickly became fascinated. Last month, the show shattered iTunes’s record for podcast episode downloads, crossing the 5 million mark and attracting ears from all over the globe. And it has other marks of being a 2014 sensation: A “Serial”-focused forum on the online community Reddit, alight with alternate theories; anticipatory tweets before new episodes become available, typically each Thursday; breakfast-themed parody podcasts playing off its title’s homonym.
While “Serial” is new, it is also the latest offering in a line of serialized entertainments that have captivated large swathes of the populace since nearly the beginning of mass media — Charles Dickens in the 19th century, perhaps most famously, and many other writers (including those of children’s books today) parceled out work in installments, while soap operas and various series, mini and otherwise, have kept fans glued to their radios and TV sets since the early decades of the 20th.
But “Serial” is a little different. Most of its predecessors drew from fiction for their stories; “Serial,” meanwhile, is using a real-life event as its focus, with Koenig and her staff figuring out the particulars of Syed’s case nearly simultaneously with their listeners.
The popularity of “Serial” taps into a few established trends. The approach of parceling out an epic story in pieces has enjoyed tremendous success in the world of young-adult novels, such as the Harry Potter series, and their cinematic spinoffs. At the cutting-edge of the current television renaissance sits shows like “The Sopranos,’’ “Mad Men,’’ “Breaking Bad,’’ and, most recently, “True Detective,” which, like “Serial,’’ focused on a single mystery.
With the rise of the Internet, and its seemingly infinite space for “content,” along with its flexibility in allowing users to determine their own level of engagement, journalists and others have started using their research notes and copies of documents as supplemental material for pieces. Consider the way postgame press conferences, once the domain of sources and reporters, have become available to fans without such access by means of streaming, or how full transcripts of edited interviews have accompanied their online release. “Serial” extends to a dozen episodes a story that might have received 1,000 words in a print newspaper, or a couple of blog posts on a local news outlet’s website.
Koenig makes for a compelling center of the story. Her presentation of her notes is fairly egoless; listeners can hear her figuring the story out as it goes along, pushing sources during interviews, expressing confusion over minutiae of the case, wrestling with ethical tangles. The idea that she’s essentially opening herself up while she’s reopening Lee’s murder case gives “Serial” a narrative thrust beyond that of the crime; her process of piecing together details and asking questions invites listeners to do the same, which has no doubt helped fuel the many online discussions surrounding the show.
True-crime narrative makes up a longstanding segment of American popular culture, from luridly illustrated magazines (think True Detective, from which the TV series got its name) to celebrated tomes and television series. Truman Capote with “In Cold Blood,” which was born as a four-part New Yorker magazine series, dissected a murder in Kansas, and Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry chronicled the Manson family murders in “Helter Skelter.’’ Shows such as “Dateline NBC’’ and “America’s Most Wanted’’ are mainstays. And the Investigation Discovery network has taken the ideals of procedurals such as “Law & Order” and applied them to real cases.
The rise in self-publishing online also has occasioned a proliferation of amateur detectives dusting off old cases and delving into still-unfolding narratives for the purposes of “crimeblogging” or developing and sharing information from published sources and independent investigations on bulletin boards.
The success of “Serial,” then, joins the relentlessly first-person aesthetic of “This American Life” with a crime that invites suspicion of the legal system and has just enough pulpy elements to be seen as “entertainment,” even though the murder case it pivots on is very real.
With its mushrooming audience, “Serial” has not been without its critics. In the online magazine The Awl, writer Jay Caspian Kang took Koenig to task for exercising “white reporter privilege” — he accuses her of “stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand” and of painting a story where principals’ families are from Pakistan (Syed) and Korea (Lee) with too broad a brush. In the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance worried about the story’s true-crime aspect, wondering whether fanatic listeners were “trawling through a grieving family’s pain as a form of entertainment.”
Before Thanksgiving, the “Serial” staff announced that donations and sponsorship had added up to enough to greenlight a second season, which will focus on a different story. Meanwhile, Syed’s appeal goes on, with the courts deciding whether or not he received effective counsel during his initial trial — and with the American public newly aware of his case, and who he was a lifetime ago.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @maura.
Correction: A prior version incorrectly said that “Serial’’ was broadcast on National Public Radio stations. The initial show was, but subsequent ones are available via podcast.