“Serial” is the most popular podcast in the world and I don’t quite understand why.
If you’ve somehow missed hearing about “Serial,” it’s a multi-part podcast that investigates a fifteen-year-old murder case and is produced by people who have worked on another podcast that I do love, This American Life. “Serial’s” popularity is a verifiable fact. According to Apple it’s reached five million downloads on iTunes faster than any other podcast and is the most popular podcast in several countries. The show’s been referenced by high-profile media outlets that I’ve never seen mention a podcast before. Conan O’Brien tweeted about it and The Today Show did a segment about it (and morning news shows are always the last place to hear about pop culture trends). I see the show mentioned in my Facebook feed several times a week, if not every day.
It’s not enough to like this show. People say they are “addicted” to it. They are “obsessed” and “enthralled.” The Today show report said it has a “cult-like” following. There is a thread on reddit devoted to investigating the crime. It’s inspired not one, but TWO, podcasts devoted to talking about the podcast. This fanaticism is where my problem comes in because although I think it’s a good show, I don’t huff it like glue. I don’t look forward to Thursday mornings when the latest episode is released. I don’t feel the need to discuss the details of the case with anyone. If a month went by between episodes instead of a week, I would be perfectly ok with that.
This makes me very strange. And alone.
Just to be perfectly clear, “Serial” is a good show. I’m not hating on it. It’s excellently produced and I love the theme music. It’s made by talented people and it shows. However, it’s not crack-cocaine for my ears like it is for everyone else. I feel like I’m at a party with a bunch of alcoholics who are slamming back drinks and don’t understand why I’m like, “One glass is fine, thanks.” It doesn’t mean the wine’s bad. It just means it’s not giving me the same buzz it’s giving everyone else.
Standing outside a phenomena is equal parts lonely and maddening. The more the podcast gets mentioned the more I wonder, “What am I missing here? Why is this so popular?” I have yet to find anyone else who feels the same way as I do about the show. I feel like everyone is at a party that I haven’t been invited to. People are seeing a color that I’m blind to. I’m not part of the group. I wish I were, but I’m not.
I suspect part of the appeal of being addicted to the show is that lots of other people are addicted too, so you get to be part of a cool, new group. You get to belong. I’ve been part of groups like this before. In high school I was part of the “RENT is the best musical ever” group. After college I was in the “Firefly was an amazing show and Fox was stupid to cancel it” group. Lately I’ve been in the “Tatiana Maslany is amazing on Orphan Black and it’ s a crime she hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy” group. Being part of a group that loves something is fun. I think this concept explains the continued success of boy bands. If all your friends like them, and hey, the boys are cute enough, it can be fun to like them too, and even more fun if you decide to really, really, REALLY, like them. It’s immensely satisfying to be part of a group that is passionate about something.
It’s also immensely dissatisfying to be outside that group looking in, but there’s not much I can do about that. You can’t make me addicted to “Serial” any more than you can make me become an alcoholic. Ironically the mass love affair for “Serial” is starting to make me dislike the show a bit because I’m not getting the same buzz as everyone else. I now feel obligated to listen to every episode so I can keep up with current affairs, and nothing kills the joy of something like turning it into homework.
The show seems to be popular in part because it gives people a lot to talk about. Because there are no clear-cut answers and everyone’s testimony is questionable, there are multiple ways you can look at the evidence and multiple theories for people to speculate about. I’m a freelancer who works from home, so I don’t spend that much time chatting with other people during the work day. However when I did work at an office I remember how difficult it could be to come up with small talk day after day, so I understand how having a podcast that releases a new episode each week could really help kill uncomfortable silences at work.
I’ve tried to figure out why I don’t like the show as much as everyone else. I think it’s partly because I find it ethically questionable to drag all the people personally affected by this crime into the spotlight. I have to assume the death of a child is one of the worst things that can happen to you, right after having that murder discussed by thousands upon thousands of strangers as entertainment. Your daughter is no longer a person but a puzzle to solve. I don’t think the producers of “Serial” had any idea how popular it would become, but that doesn’t make the basic concept any less questionable.
I’m only a year or two older than the people involved in the crime, so it seems more like something that could have happened in my life than just a story on the radio. I was in high school when they were in high school. I could have been friends with these people if I’d lived in their city. When people are interviewed about things that happened at that time I’m able to imagine what it would be like to try to remember what happened to me in high school, and trust me, a lot of those memories are murky at best. I can’t even remember my locker number, let alone my locker combination.
The podcast devotes a lot of time to the minute details of the case. Time is spent tracing out the route someone took on the day of the crime, meticulously checking cell-tower ping records and call records and trying to verify if a pay phone existed outside a Best Buy at that time. While a lot of people have described this as “fascinating,” I find it tedious. I much rather would have heard a quick summary of their findings instead of hearing about every stop on the route.
And of course, I doubt there can be any kind of satisfying ending to the show. We’re never really going to know what happened. It’s unlikely there will be a last-minute confession or a buried piece of evidence revealed that will make everything crystal clear. “Serial” explores the fact that the truth is messy. So much of life is unknowable. You can never really know everything about someone, even if they’re your best friend. While those are important ideas to know about life in general, they’re not ones I find satisfying in a multi-part podcast. If you’re going to tell me a story, I’d like it if it has a resolution, which life rarely does. Stories help us make sense of life. That’s what differentiates storytelling from life, stories have to make sense whereas real life has no obligation to.
If you’re not die-hard in love with the show, or maybe even if you are, you might enjoy these “Serial” podcast parodies which are the only things that have made me feel a bit better that I’m not part of the “Serial” love-in. (Yes, the podcast is popular enough that it’s inspired a parody.)
It sounds like it’s great to be someone who is addicted to “Serial.” You all seem to be having a lot of fun. I wish I were invited to the party, but I’m not. I’ll just be standing here outside, alone.
Updated at 5:15pm: I guess I got the timing of this post right because Salon just published an article that lays out the criticism of “Serial” way better than I could.