Brow Beat

Mark Boal’s Voice Is Kind of a Weird Fit for Serial

Mark Boal.

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for WGAw

“I might not laugh, but you can try.” Mark Boal says this a few seconds after he is introduced in the first episode of Serial’s second season. Boal is speaking to Bowe Bergdahl about why he seems to keep his personality so close to the vest during their conversations, and it’s a revealing comment: Boal is being, well, kind of a hardass. At least in comparison to the Serial host we got to know last season, the searching, self-doubting, appealingly neurotic Sarah Koenig, a host who would never not laugh at an interviewee’s attempted joke.

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Koenig is still hosting Serial, but all the recordings she has of Bowe, a U.S. soldier who disappeared from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and whose story will be the focus of this season, came from Boal. Boal was previously a journalist but now works in the movie business—he wrote and produced Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker—and spent 25 hours recording his conversations with Bergdahl because he was interested in making a film about him.

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In fact, listeners sometimes hear Boal making a snack, sending emails, or wrangling his dog. Though Bergdahl declined to do any further interviews beyond his chats with Boal, he gave Serial permission to use those tapes, and this season will be a partnership between the show and Boal’s production company.

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That means that Koenig will not be speaking with Bergdahl herself at all this season. All those heart-to-hearts Koenig had with Adnan Syed last season, each one introduced by the telltale automated operator on the prison phone line, which pretty much formed the centerpiece of the show? We won’t be getting any such material. Instead, all of Bergdahl’s words will be mediated through Boal—with his jaded tone and gruff timbre—and his tapes, which weren’t originally intended for broadcast. Though she may narrate his words and his story, crucially, Koenig is never actually talking to Bergdahl herself.

Last year, Slate’s Amanda Hess described Koenig’s style as meandering and chatty, the voice of the just-like-us “good cop.” She avoided asking tough questions, instead building empathy with her subjects and downplaying her reportorial bona fides. Boal is a good, engaging, tough interviewer. And sure, there were some listeners who complained that Koenig’s voice was “annoying.” But Koenig sounds less like a hard-nosed correspondent than an eager, open-hearted confidant, regardless of how incisive and aggressive her actual reporting is. So far, the fact that Koenig herself has no direct conversations with him gives the storytelling a more remote quality. Her interviewing style was key to the effectiveness of Serial Season 1: Her unsuspecting vibe disarms her sources in the same way she disarms us. And her direct pipeline to Adnan was the emotional and narrative backbone of last season.

Needless to say, though, it’s early in Season 2—and it remains to be seen how future episodes will integrate the Boal interviews into Koenig’s reporting. Also, it seems possible that Boal hasn’t yet revealed the full extent of his earnestness and empathy: He revived his dormant-since-2013 Twitter account to tweet a bit about Serial this week, and wrote: “Particularly grateful to Sarah for editing out the part where I talk to my dog in a baby voice.”

Go deep on Serial Season 2 with Slate’s spoiler special.

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