Serial podcast needs to go back to basics with controversy, uncertainty and room for debate

Season two of the real-life crime phenomenon is disappointing because there are fewer points of view and a less intriguing central figure who is definitely guilty of some wrongdoing, says Mark Jefferies

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The last time I listened to a podcast was probably four or five years ago when Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington used to do a hilarious rambling series that made me laugh out loud on the Underground.

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As a format, podcasts had completed dropped off my radar until Serial came along – and the real-life crime series is being credited with making the podcast more mainstream, so it seems I’m not alone.

I came to Serial late, so I was able to listen to the whole first season in less than a week, as it investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee for which her ex Adnan Masud Syed was charged.

I loved the intrigue, the dozens of unanswered questions and the revelations of huge flaws in the court case, both in terms of the prosecution and the lacklustre defence of Adnan.

The difference of opinion amongst everyone who listened to Serial was huge too, there were so many ideas and so many theories.

Some people really felt sympathetic towards Adnan, others angry and convinced of his guilt. 

Guilty or not guilty, there were hardly any concrete facts in the case, and even some of those used in court were then cleverly picked apart by narrator and executive producer Sarah Koenig.

But now we come to season two, and this time the subject is Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was held for five years by the Taliban, and then arrested for desertion.

Don’t get me wrong, it is an interesting topic and they have great exclusive access to Bergdahl.

But it just doesn’t work in the way the first season does.

To begin with, Bergdahl chose to leave his post in Afghanistan. That fact is not open for debate, like so many of the supposed facts in season one. So although there are lots of unanswered questions, many people have less or even no sympathy for the central subject.

To make matters worse, no one else speaking really knows what happened. No one saw Bergdahl leave his post, no other members of the army were with him whilst he was prisoner, and so any supposed insight is entirely provided by Bergdahl. There are no contrasting views and opinions as there were when Serial retraced the day of Hae Min Lee’s murder.

And finally, this time around the Serial team are releasing the podcast once every fortnight, rather than weekly, making it much harder for fans to keep the story at the forefront of their mind. 

The opening episode of the first series is now estimated to have been downloaded over 68 million times and rising. But Serial 2 won’t keep even half those listeners happy in my opinion, and I expect some will now be turning off.

It’s still a good podcast, but I don’t find myself wanting to binge on Bergdahl episodes or to pore over articles and interviews when the series finishes. 

If Serial 3 is to recapture listeners’ imaginations, it needs to go back to the basics with a case featuring controversy, uncertainty and room for debate…

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Mark Jefferies is Showbiz Editor at the Daily Mirror