Today’s media landscape is overflowing with podcasts, which makes sense given how easy it is to make, access and listen to them. But there is one that stands out as the kingpin podcast, the elite high watermark of a what an audio experience should be — Serial.
Serial came onto the scene in 2014 before the podcast revolution was in full swing. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, a journalist with the kind and velvety voice I want narrating the inner dialogue in my brain, its inaugural season told a compelling narrative of the 1999 murder case of high school senior Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, whose ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
“Contrary to what we thought, people … do have patience for journalism that takes its time,” Koenig said in her Peabody award acceptance speech for season one. “They like complicated stories about complicated people who do complicated things.”
While seasons one and two of Serial dealt with specific individuals dealing with unique circumstances, the third season aims to deal with the complicated nature of the criminal justice system at large. The six episodes that have run so far have done just that. Koenig and her team chose to examine Cleveland, a city that granted them unprecedented access to record in the courtroom and behind closed doors.
Though season three does not deal with the thrilling drama of an unsolved teenage murder case where Koenig reads from the deceased’s diary to gain clues (yes, that happened in season one), it does provide powerful insight into a system that many Americans willfully ignore if they are not caught up in it.
I spent a few days this summer in courthouses shadowing an attorney, and can attest that proximity affects your perspective on the criminal justice system. Sitting on those hard wooden benches in the gallery let me see the complicated — and sometimes shocking — nature of legal proceedings that is too often ignored by the public outside of the building. This is what Serial gives its listeners: a seat inside the courtroom.
Season three lets you listen in on attorneys negotiating plea deals, judges delivering harsh lectures followed by sentencing and family members discussing the emotional weight of the process. Koenig discusses the infamous case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer, allowing both sides to speak their peace.
The 12 episodes in season one examined Syed’s alleged involvement in a dramatic fashion, examining every element, but ultimately leaving Koenig unable to say for certain whether or not he committed the crime. However, Serial isn’t looking at one specific case anymore; it’s looking at the whole picture in season three.
“I don’t think we can understand how the criminal justice system works by interrogating one extraordinary case,” Koenig says in the trailer for this season. “Ordinary cases are where we need to look.”
New episodes of Serial are released every Thursday.