Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t yet listened to Serial, the new podcast from the This American Life crew, you’re gonna want to start right now. The true story of high schooler Hae Min Lee’s murder in 1999 and her boyfriend Adnan Syed’s conviction for the crime couldn’t be more complex and dynamic if it were fictionalized. One episode, it may seem obvious that Adnan is innocent; the next, you may have no question that he’s guilty. Combine this with the fantastic editing and Sarah Koenig’s vivid and sympathetic narration, and you get just about the best detective story out there – not to mention the most popular podcast ever produced. But what lies in store for the show now that Adnan’s story is finished? How could this sudden breakthrough success influence podcasts on the whole? And most importantly… did he do it?
Well, no one really knows on that last one, except Adnan. If you’ve listened to the series, you’ve probably felt the same back-and-forth about Adnan’s guilt that Koenig describes feeling herself, but perhaps the most effective way to crack the case would be to listen to the entire series without changing your stance. Assume Adnan’s guilty, then listen to everything to see if it adds up with him being guilty. Then do the same with the assumption that he’s innocent. And yet, while this would be the most effective way to cross-check all the evidence with every version of the story, Serial correspondent Deidre Enright insists that the wishy-washy approach is the most level-headed way to look at a case. “You are juggling and everything’s in the air and you’re frozen, and you have to stay there until you’ve eliminated all questions,” she tells Koenig on Episode 7, “The Opposite of the Prosecution.” “Because if you come down or catch one and get attached to it, you’re gonna make the same mistakes that law enforcement do.”
But Koenig and her team have dedicated their lives to unraveling this case for the last year – what more could there possibly be to discover that they haven’t already figured out? Plenty, as it turns out. Now that the case has so much national attention again, more information pops up every day. For instance, Jay consistently refused all offers to be interviewed for Serial – and yet he recently did an extensive three-part interview with The Intercept. Does he finally denounce his previous testimony and admit Adnan was innocent? Does he offer some new definitive piece of evidence that points to Adnan’s guilt? Actually, his interview doesn’t really help at all; he sticks to the accusations towards Adnan that we heard on the show, except now his testimony shows even more inconsistencies. The plot only thickens.
Not to mention that fans will keep unraveling the case as far as they can until they finally find definitive proof that Adnan is or isn’t guilty. For instance, a decent portion of the podcast focuses on whether or not there’s actually a payphone that Adnan could have used in the parking lot of the Best Buy, as Jay’s story claims. And yet fans noticed that his defense attorney noted a payphone there in her opening statement, basically settling the whole issue right there. As one commenter pointed out, “This raises the question of if the Serial team seemingly flubbed something so obvious, what else did they miss?” Plus there’s still new evidence showing up every day – we still haven’t heard back about those DNA tests mentioned in the last episode, and if they tie Adnan or Jay to Hae’s burial site, that might crack the case alone.
We can only imagine (or help contribute to) where fans might take Serial, but where will Koenig and company take it? Can we realistically expect another season just as intriguing and perpetually engaging as the first? Honestly, we probably can’t – as they discussed in the final episode, Adnan’s case was unusually complex, a rare find. Additionally, the crew researched and prepared for the first season for over a year before they even started broadcasting, which would be rather exhausting if they had to do that before every single season. Add in all the complicated questions of journalistic ethics that have come into play over the course of the podcast’s life, and it seems completely possible that the second season of Serial will be only a pale shadow of its predecessor. We should be prepared for that, but not necessarily disappointed by it. If lightning can’t strike twice, at least it struck once and in spectacular fashion.
Even if Serial can’t capture the magic again, other podcasts probably will in their own original way. There’s never been a podcast anywhere near this popular before, and whereas the medium has always been a niche assortment of oddities like Comedy Bang! Bang! and special interest series like StarTalk Radio, now people who have never listened to a podcast before are suddenly tuning in. So what’s gonna happen with all this new attention?
The most likely immediate consequence is a lot more podcasts experimenting with long-form narrative. Just like Netflix shows are designed for bingewatching with the expectation that everyone starts from the first episode, podcasts fit the mold just as well. With the free and easily backlogged nature of podcasts, it’s extremely easy for people to start at the beginning and listen chronologically, just like a Netflix original series, especially when people can crank through episode after episode through hours of daily commuting or exercising.
But will we see more podcasts just like Serial? There will probably be plenty of cheap imitators, but I wouldn’t expect we’ll become inundated with audio crime dramas. Serial will make a huge impact on the medium, but there’s really no reason it needs to be a podcast, nothing that it does with audio that pushes the form forward. Plus, most people don’t have the time or resources to mount a project of the same scale, especially when there isn’t much profit in a free product. Instead, we’ll probably see people experimenting with the form and trying out the new serialized format in unique ways. We’ll likely see the rise in radio dramas for the first time since they left radio, or maybe more autobiographical podcasts in a similar style to travel books. It’s an exciting time to be a podcast fan, and it’ll only get better over the next few years.