By now, you’ve probably heard of Serial, the new true-crime podcast narrated by the able, affable reporter Sarah Koenig. Earlier this week, Apple reported that Serial reached 5 million downloads and streams faster than any other podcast ever. Fans gobble up each installment, dissecting the minutiae of the 1999 murder case involving Hae-Min Lee, the daughter of Korean immigrants, and her former boyfriend and classmate, Adnan Syed. Slate launched a podcast dedicated to parsing Serial. There’s a killer YouTube parody. Koenig has reached Ira Glass–level fame.
Also, the theme music is catchy.
Of course, anything so popular is bound to prompt a backlash. On Tuesday, someone on Reddit claiming to be the victim’s brother called the show out for sensationalizing Hae-Min Lee’s murder. A week ago, Jay Caspian Kang wrote of Serial’s cultural myopia and took issue with what he sees as Koenig’s “white privilege.’’ Julie Carrie Wong went further still in Buzzfeed, arguing that Koenig depends on the myth of the model minority—good student, responsible child—to make her case.
I’ve got an altogether different gripe: It’s a snooze.
That’s right: Serial bores me. It meanders. It has lines of inquiry that dead end. Koenig, for all her enthusiasm and journalistic know-how, is too close to becoming a full-grown Harriet the Spy, trying to get to the bottom of a potential wrongful conviction. She’s a plucky narrator, and it’s an admirable pursuit, certainly, to help exonerate a person imprisoned for something he didn’t do. But it’s plain dull for a listener, or for this listener, to pay attention as Koenig endlessly hypothesizes as to what might have gone down in 1999.
Koenig has suggested that there’s no definitive answer to this case. It’s not a podcast version of a TV crime show, because it’s not fiction. Loose ends will not be sewn up, which is fitting for real life. As I understand it, Koenig and her colleagues are still making the episodes as they post—they themselves don’t know how the show resolves (or doesn’t). While Serial’s an exciting experiment in a new journalistic form, in this case it’s also turning out to be uninspiring storytelling.
In the last episode I listened to, Koenig and her producer tool around town timing themselves going from location A to location B trying to figure out which ancient alibis might still hold up. At one point, pulling out of a parking lot, the producer calls out, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib!’’ The absurdity of that statement, uttered amid discussion of a teenager’s murder (and quoted in Kang’s essay), stayed with me. It belies, I submit, a boredom even Serial’s staff might be experiencing as they crawl deeper into this winding rabbit warren.
I don’t mean to minimize the murder or dishonor the victim. What happened to her is tragic. And if Syed didn’t do it, he shouldn’t have to do the time. But the self-indulgence of the show (now on episode nine—and counting!) became too much for me several weeks ago already. I stopped listening after episode five. In the words of another well-regarded podcast: TL;DR.
Since I gave up, whenever new installments post, I’ve felt pangs of guilt, like a high-school student avoiding her homework or, more aptly, like a culture writer failing to stay on top of the zeitgeist. Yet I’ve found nothing in those episodes that I did listen to that made me want to keeping coming back. When Koenig spoke with Syed on the phone, he was casual to the point of sounding downright blasé. Except for the siblings who brought the case to Koenig’s attention, everyone else she spoke with sounded similarly uninvested in this 15-year-old case. In the absence of any sense of urgency from someone besides Koenig, the whole project has taken on the regrettable veneer of a vanity project. Or a lark.
Yet so loud are the echoes of praise for Serial, even among people whose opinions I respect, that I am ambivalent about confessing my true feelings. Who wants to be the naysayer on something so many others think infallible? Who wants to risk displeasing Ira Glass?
I know people who’ve worked on This American Life (from which Serial spun off). It’s a show I consistently listen to, adore, and defend when others bellyache about it. I work in the media myself, and going public with this opinion feels like I’m going rogue, thumbing my nose at a considered consensus, insulting people I like and respect, and Lord knows what unfortunate results could ensue from voicing such an opinion.
For all these reasons, I even considered publishing this piece anonymously. But that would be a cowardly cop-out, and I have high hopes that a future Serial season will succeed in gripping me in its clutches. I’m happy to join a bandwagon if it’s a good one — I’m all in when it comes to Broad City and StartUp. So, let’s consider this first season of Serial merely a beta, and hope they get the bugs worked out before the general release.
Credit home page photo to flickr user Incase.