Brow Beat

Why Sarah Koenig’s Serial Season 1 Updates From Adnan’s Trial Are So Frustrating

Adnan Syed.

This American Life

Serial is still a good podcast. The sixth episode of the second season, “Five O’ Clock Shadow,” ably tackled two complicated and arresting questions—what Bowe Bergdahl was like as a soldier, and whether his company was cursed with toxic leadership. Maybe a world bereft of collect calls from North Branch Correctional Facility has cruelly extinguished your Pavlovian response to the Stitcher icon on a Thursday morning. But give Season 2 a chance and you will—still, I promise!—hear a well-written script unfolding a nuanced, interesting, occasionally funny, frequently moving narrative.

But so far, the Adnan trial mini-updates are a different story. When Sarah Koenig announced that she would be reporting from Adnan’s trial and recording updates to Serial Season 1, I was so excited. We all were. We tapped our feeds, the rainspatter plink of the old theme seduced our ears, and apprehensions of Christina Gutierrez surfaced from the deep like a terrible fish. And then? Well, it became clear that these bite-sized recaps—about 15 minutes a pop—of Syed’s hearing for post-conviction relief were running on fumes. Specifically, on the fumes of listener loyalty and curiosity from season one. The new episodes are mewls of impotence, not triumphant returns. They play to exactly none of Serial’s strengths.

The updates take the form of daily, after-the-fact phone conversations between Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis.* Koenig used to be the keeper of Syed’s story (and a possible catalyst for the reopening of his case); now she’s just a face in the courthouse crowd. She describes, in awed tones, the appearance and testimony of alibi witness Asia McClain, whom Syed’s lawyer never contacted. She speculates about how the state might try to discredit McClain’s memories. She reports that incoming calls do transmit data about location, and then that they don’t (experts disagree). It all feels so secondhand, so uninformed. Koenig can’t even use audio clips of the proceedings. She is left to haphazardly summarize events for Chivvis, who prods her in ways—Then what happened? What do you mean?—that suggest not artful, collaborative storytelling, but a forgetful and distracted host.

“This seems like a big deal,” Koenig will say, or “That made me go ‘uh-oh.’” She doesn’t always elaborate, though, taking for granted both our memory of details from the first season and our ability to piece together the implications of various findings and reversals. For instance, why does it matter whether Syed got in touch with alibi witness Asia McClain from prison? (Because, our host implies but never says, if McClain lied about her contact with Syed, she could also be lying about his whereabouts on the day of the murder.) What would it mean if authorities could definitively trace Syed’s cellphone to Leakin Park? (Koenig and Chivvis don’t even try to answer this one—yet given the complex timelines and alibis swirling around, I could have used the refresher.)   

Serial has always had a Socratic spirit—it approaches a possibly asymptotic truth by asking lots of open-minded questions. In Season 1, this model, revelation via chatting, worked well. Koenig’s easy inquisitiveness made for a satisfying contrast with her interviewees, who were experts or else personally connected to the story. They either knew more or felt more about the subject than she did; what she understood was how to weave their contributions into appointment listening.

But now, the two conversants, Chivvis and Koenig, occupy the same host/narrator role—neither has a personal investment in Syed’s fate, and neither has specific legal expertise to lend. This throws off the show’s balance, making it seem glib and dilettantish. Gleams of textbook Serial humor land oddly, as when Chivvis phones Koenig only to get her voicemail, or Koenig broadcasts amid animal-printed robes in a hotel closet, feeling “svelegant.” What’s more, Chivvis’ emergence as a “character,” with a nerdy passion for the intricacies of cell tower transmission, just makes Koenig, working in a similarly curious and friendly vein, appear less competent.

But really, the Season 1 postscripts are sad because they represent the unraveling of a very beautifully and very carefully tied bow. Season 1 of Serial was art, with considered teases and reveals, distinctive turns-of-phrase, and an overall goal not just to explain what happened, but to stir in insight. Meanwhile, the post-conviction relief analysis doesn’t go any deeper than Asia was persuasive, [legal expert] Dave Erwin was convincing, this line of questioning seemed promising, that back-and-forth felt like a draw. True, Serial’s creators aren’t trying to revive the Season 1 experience—they simply want to bring us up to speed. (And anyway, it is too early to know the significance of most of what’s transpiring in Baltimore.) But the strengths of the podcast so clearly involve craftsmanship—a cumulative shape and structure, a command of the narrative—that the recent ragged, chaotic entries can’t help but hit us as shadows of what was.

Finally, these mini-episodes may appear not to matter because the Serial team has decided they don’t matter. As Koenig explained to Chivvis in her final update, Syed’s hearing would spill over into the following week, but her coverage would not. “We need you to go home,” Chivvis agreed. And Koenig repeated: “I have to make the next [entry in the Bowe Bergdahl saga] or it won’t happen.” Serial’s priorities have shifted, away from Syed and his case, toward a story the podcasters can devote more time to and exert more control over. That choice may not make superfans happy, but from here it looks like the right one. 

Correction, Feb. 9, 2016: This post originally misspelled Dana Chivvis’ last name.