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Friday, January 09, 2015

Why Serial should avoid true crime in the future

I, like most people in my demographic of upper middle class quasi-intellectual hipsters with a penchant for good storytelling, loved the podcast Serial. So many people loved it so much that they quickly fundraised enough money for production of season 2. The fans, the opiners, the yay-sayers, are already discussing what true crime case Serial should tackle next. In my opinion, they're making a huge mistake.

In my opinion, Serial should never touch true crime again.

First - the title. Serial means something examined in a, well, serial fashion. It does not mean crime. It is true that crime stories with a lot of twists, turns and new revelations of evidence are well suited to this format, but so are novels. So is life. So are longer stories than This American Life-producers have been able to squeeze into their hour-long podcasts. The production team know this. From This American Life, they are used to telling short stories, depicting scenes, showing brief images around a central topic. Once in a while they spend the whole hour of their show on just one story, and they always make a big deal of it. But the world is full of stories that are way longer and more complex than what can be fit in an hour. To me, that is what their title means. They want to return to the newspaper serial - the time when books where published in installments and you actually had to wait, and you could discuss the content in the interim. Serial doesn't need to have anything to do with crime. To me, it is a coincidence that their first topic happened to be a dusty old court case.

Second - innovation. What is the central innovation of Serial? To me, the central innovation is the format - not the topic. After a few years of the bulk of podcasts being made as weekly installments of talk radio, listeners were ready for something new in their ears. But there are several true crime podcasts out there, so that is not where the innovation lies. I think the only real differences from other podcasts to Serial are the production team, and their focus on the long format. The production team is unique - you can taste and smell the vibe of the parent podcast This American Life all over Serial. Their personality is what is popular. And the long format is established in the title. I think you can get true crime elsewhere if that is what you're after. I think the uniqueness of this team is in their storytelling ability. So, what should they do?

Part of the charm of This American Life is that I feel like I learn something about the human condition every week. I approach an old topic with fresh eyes and new vantage points. And this is what is Serial's strength as well. Not the suspense - others can offer suspense. Not the digging up of unique old cases - the existing suggestions for next season shows that finding mysterious cases is something more people can do.

What Serial offers me are the observations - the reflections - on truth, the justice system, the uncertainty of witness testimonies, what an ordinary and extraordinary day is, what we really notice about our surroundings, about friendship, motive, and what seemingly completely average humans are capable of. Serial has taught me this. I do not need it repeated.

Also, what is special about Serial is the format. Not the crime story, not the particular reflection of the back- and forth-nature of an investigation. Well - actually, what is special is kind of the back and forth: A process.

Serial's strength lies in it's ability to bring you on a long journey of reflection, of considerations, of changes in light of new evidence, and how your own perspective and evaluations change over time. There are many things in a human life, in the world, that follow this narrative and that are completely under-reported. Serial can actually follow a process. (Creds to my friend Vegard Tveito for eloquating this point about the process, and some of these examples.) One example of what they can do is follow a stand-up comedian as he or she develops their material - their set evolving each night on the road. Or they can follow the design of a new product - all the twists and turns and obstacles along the way. They can follow the course of a dramatic relationship, every episode making you take sides over and over. They can follow a researcher as he or she is searching for a discovery. Life is full of these kinds of serialized happenings and evolutions.

My request for the next season of Serial is that it once again finds a way for me to look at slightly mundane things with fresh observations. It doesn't have to do that through a mysterious true crime case. I want the long format, and I want the storytelling. But other than that, I think the production team should find exactly the amazing story they want to tell - and it really doesn't have to involve the police.