Culture

Three Theories Why Serial’s Second Season Seems So Disappointing

There's a reason you've switched to 'Making A Murderer'.

Serial‘s second season is finally here, and even as a card-carrying obsessive, I admit something feels different this time around. It’s not just that the story has changed. Something deeper and more fundamental has shifted, and four episodes in, I am a little disappointed.

The new season of course deals with a different subject matter. Sarah Koenig’s investigations have shifted from the 1999 murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and the questions of guilt around her convicted murderer and former boyfriend Adnan Syed, to the intensely complex case of Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl is the US soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban then held captive for five years. After being finally released in a prisoner exchange in May 2014, he now faces military court, charged with two crimes: desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and one count of misbehaviour before the enemy. This carries a life sentence — even after his five years in captivity.

It’s true that some stories are more intriguing — or horrific, dramatic and unbelievable — than others. That’s just the reality of what interests us. Maybe we just prefer murder mysteries because they’re more personal and juicier than a complex case of military crime. But, is that all that’s going on here? Are we just voyeuristic monsters more interested in sensationally negligent murder convictions than anything else?

Perhaps the problem is even more basic than that. Here are a few more reasons why you may be feeling let down.

Bergdahl Isn’t Really In The Story

Bowe Bergdahl. It’s a name that even I had heard before, all the way over in Australia, when the news first leaked in September. He had appeared in so many news reports and been profiled so brilliantly that I felt like I already knew about him. Or at least I knew the basic outline; the “facts”, but not the story.

For that reason, it seemed like he’d be a great subject — the only one who really knows his own motivations and what he endured. Here’s the thing, though. There are no new direct interviews with Bergdahl this season. Instead we’re played recordings of earlier conversations he had with screenwriter/journalist Mark Boal (The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty). Boal had 25 hours of phone interviews that he recorded as part of his research into his next film, and he approached Serial about using them with Bergdahl’s permission. Because of this we’re introduced to Bergdahl as he introduced himself to Boal.

This extra degree of separation should, in theory, be insignificant. After all, we heard the version of Adnan Syed that he presented to Koenig. But there’s something slightly strange about the re-purposing of these recordings; it feels like a reflection of an interview, not quite getting at the core of what we were just talking about in the episode. This was what made Koenig’s interviews with Syed so compelling: they were completely on point, anticipating the listener’s questions as they formed in our minds. There were moments that Koenig made it feel like we were interviewing Syed, and this immediacy allowed us to empathise more fully when he answered.

Season two has moments of that, of course. In ‘DUSTWUN’, for example, Bergdahl gives a lengthy and candid explanation of the intensity of his isolation while in captivity. “I would wake up not even remembering what I was,” he says. “You know how you get that feeling when that word is on the tip of your tongue? That happened to me, only it was like, What am I? I couldn’t see my hands, I couldn’t do anything.”

As for other parts — well, perhaps it’s projection because we know they were recorded for something else, but they seem a little stale.

It Feels A Little Like An Ad For The Movie

It’s explained in the season’s first episode that Mark Boal has approached Serial with his recordings, and asked to do the collaboration. His film company, Page 1, are planning to make a movie about Berghdahl, but as Koenig makes a point to note, this relationship doesn’t extend outside the podcast. “We don’t have anything to do with their movie,” she said. “But Mark and Page 1 are our partners for season two.” In a profile for The New Yorker that same week it was said they even share editorial decisions.

As Michelle Dean pointed out in The Guardian, this collaboration with Boal’s film company toes a strange line for a project which has already been critiqued for its blend of hard reportage and entertainment. “How much of a wall is there between the movie and Serial?” Dean asked. “Does Boal count as one of the “journalists” here?” Having done all this background work himself, it’s hard to see what Boal’s motivation for approaching Serial could have been, other than orchestrating an extended promotion for his movie. Can Serial really claim they have “nothing to do with it” when it’s directly contributing to the film’s ultimate narrative?

Despite these underlying dynamics at play, I’m yet to see evidence of Boal’s influence on the Serial team’s reporting. Just like the first season, Koenig’s concerned with facts, the fallibility of memory and figuring out exactly what went down. That doesn’t make this theory insignificant, of course — a partnership doesn’t necessarily negate the credibility of someone’s reporting — but it does raise questions which weren’t there in season one.

The Terrible Weight Of Expectations

Many might envy the position that Sarah Koenig found herself in late last year: the little “experiment” she worked on spiralled into 100 million downloads, a Peabody Award and a devoted fan-base. But I’m not sure that I would. After all, she and her team including co-producer Julie Snyder, had already promised fans a second season and that’s not a great place to be.

After deciding they didn’t want to do another murder case, as Koenig told Vulture last month, the deadline for season two was looming and there was no replacement in sight. There was pressure from fans and from sponsors. But what subject could possibly follow one of the most affecting examples of true-crime journalism to date? Syed’s case had everything: a small community shaken by a crime, access to all the main players, it tapped into questions of justice, reasonable doubt and made us directly question the system that put him in prison. Plus, it had anonymity: few people had heard of this case in the US, let alone internationally.

As the first announcement on Serial‘s website says, unlike the case in their first season, this “[Bergdahl’s is] a story a gazillion people have heard about … what Bergdahl did made me wrestle with things I’d thought I more or less understood, but really didn’t: what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished.” Reading between the lines, it is an announcement that is also designed to change or lower expectations: ‘Okay, we get it. This is not going to be season one. It was never going to be. But just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s worse. Right?’

Perhaps we just need to follow Koenig’s advice. “Everyone wait for us to be done,” she told Vulture after the news of the season’s subject broke. “That’s my dream world: ‘Nobody read anything, just listen to what we do and make your measured, calm judgments.’ But that’s not the world we live in, obviously.”

I guess it remains to be seen whether we have the patience to ride out season two to the juicy bits.

You can listen to the first four episodes of Serial‘s second season here.

Em Meller is a writer, journalist and editor with a focus on law and digital privacy. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Justinian and on 2SER.