Pod People is a regular feature in which Abby Olcese explores the world of podcasts, introducing you to work-friendly listening options beyond This American Life and Radiolab.

December has been a great month for podcast nerds. Blacklist Table Reads put out an excellent interview with screenwriters Abi Morgan (of “Suffragette”) and Alex Garland (of “Ex Machina”). Limetown broadcast its cliffhanger finale. The live comedy podcast Doug Loves Movies released a hysterical, special guest-packed Christmas episode.

But by far, the most exciting entry into this advent calendar of audio goodness came via this simple tweet from This American Life host Ira Glass on December 10:

serial

The message needed no explanation. Serial, the podcast world’s answer to water-cooler television, has made its long-awaited return.

For the uninitiated (though, given the show’s runaway popularity, there aren’t many who haven’t at least heard of it), Serial is a podcast produced by public radio’s This American Life. The show takes on an investigative news story each season, then tells that story week by week, for as long as it takes to resolve.

Season one of the show explored a 1999 murder case involving Adnan Syed, a Baltimore teenager accused and convicted of killing his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Serial’s reporter, Sarah Koenig, was asked by friends of Adnan’s family to investigate his trial (which, they claimed, was mishandled), and determine whether or not Adnan had been wrongfully convicted. The twelve episodes that made up the season followed Koenig and the show’s producers as they re-opened the case, interviewed the parties involved, and advocated for its re-examination by the court.

Season two of the show follows a case that’s already familiar to the American public: the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban for five years in Afghanistan, before being rescued by the military last year. Bergdahl, who’s currently facing a court-martial, was captured because he left his post. His official story is that he left in an effort to draw attention to poor management at his base, and to collect intelligence on the Taliban.  

So far, Koenig and her crew have looked into Bergdahl’s explanation for his actions (episode one), and then the Taliban’s perspective on the story, as well as what it was like for the American soldiers who were assigned to search for Bergdahl (episode two).

Season one of the show was a personal experience. Koenig had one-on-one interviews with Adnan’s family, his friends, other suspects in the case, and, most importantly, with Adnan himself. Listeners found out information at more or less the same rate the reporters did, encouraging listener theories and discussions between each week’s episodes. Finally, there was a sense that, if Adnan truly was innocent, proving he’d been framed would be an act of justice–actual good could come of the show (and did, in fact: Adnan’s case is being re-examined).

Serial’s second season is markedly different, but not just because of the high-profile nature of the story. For one thing, Koenig has yet to speak to Bergdahl herself. Instead, we get audio clips from an interview conducted by filmmaker Mark Boll, whose production company is partnered with the Serial team for this story. The bare facts of Berghdal’s experience are known to the public and pretty much uncontested: he admits he left the base of his own accord, and that he is essentially responsible for his kidnapping by the Taliban.

What’s left, then, is a long-form recounting of the details, and discovering where the truth lies between Bergdahl’s story and the Taliban’s account. To be frank, it’s a tough story to tell well. The personal speculation element, part of what made season one such a widely-engaging experience, is gone, and there’s not much left to talk about now that it is. While the details (like the frustration felt by the soldiers who searched for Bergdahl) are interesting, there’s still no real sense that they’re leading anywhere.

Granted, the show is only two episodes in, and it’s entirely possible that some forthcoming nugget of information will turn everything on its head. For now, though, this season of Serial has proven to be simply solid reportage of a story–admirable and engaging enough by itself, but not yet anything that reaches the intense heights of its original story, nor the pioneering nature of its storytelling.

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