‘Serial’ and the Other Side of the Hype

If you don’t know what ‘Serial’ is by now, you’re probably not a tenant of the internet. It’s a podcast, a true crime story told in installments that has put the term ‘podcast’ on the tip of everyone’s tongue, never mind the fact that there’s nothing new about true crime stories, crime stories set in Baltimore, stories told in installments, narrative arcs, podcasts, or listening.

As of the last couple of episodes, I’ve started to sour on ‘Serial.’ For one, they were boring. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with basking in the details of a case where, if nothing else, someone’s daughter died. Frankly, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the Team Edward/Team Jacob-esque “Is Adnan guilty?!” speculation, when Occam’s Razor seems to have that answer already, to say nothing for a jury and a judge. And as a writer, I’ve been able to see the, pardon the pun, writing on the wall for a handful of episodes now—there is going to be little in the way of a happy ending, or even a payoff for listening. And anyone who has spent any amount of time listening to This American Life should have seen that as well. I wonder if the producers of ‘Serial’ are prepared for that backlash?

But this morning, I became aware of a new undercurrent to the show’s mostly positive reception—the clashing of the worldviews of Sarah Koenig, the woman reporting/telling the story, and the people she is reporting on. Jay Caspian Kang, in his piece “‘Serial’ and White Reporter Privilege,” writes:

The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show—and there are many more examples—should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. Who among us (and here, I’m talking to fellow people of color) hasn’t felt that subtle, discomforting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative? Who hasn’t said a word like “parameters” and watched, with grim annoyance, as it turns into “immigrant parents?” These are usually silent, cringing moments – it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.

Now, I’m not writing this, or linking to Kang’s story, or the responses, because I agree or disagree with his take; (although, the people who I’ve talked to about the show will probably know how I feel. Hint: vindicated.) I’ll let you be the judge. Because maybe you agree with Lindsay Beyerstein, who wants to know why there’s “a cottage industry of think pieces dedicated to making us feel guilty about liking Serial?” Or maybe you agree with Jaime Green’s “The Problem With the Problems With Serial,” although I would hesitate against it, since it’s kind of lacking in substance, as Jay Caspian Kang points out here. Finally, maybe you agree with Julia Carrie Wong’s “The Problem With ‘Serial’ And The Model Minority Myth,” who takes a different track from Kang, but still raises concerns about the treatment of race in ‘Serial.’

What I do know is this—Liberals/Democrats often take Republicans/Conservatives to task for a lack of diversity in their chosen leadership. Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so I ask: does this look like the ideal team to dive deep into a complex story where race and religion are obvious factors, there are no white main characters, and it all takes place in a city that is 63% black?