Serial: Podcasting a Puzzle

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What were you doing last Wednesday? Was it raining? Are you sure? Name every single person you talked to that day. Now try doing that for a random day six weeks ago, now try 15 years ago. Oh and did I mention, you can’t check your cell phone? This is the beauty and the absurdity of the podcast Serial, which is available in its entirety at

The podcasters try to unwind and “solve” a murder that took place in Baltimore in 1999. A high school girl goes missing and is eventually found in a shallow grave in a wooded park. Police suspect her ex-boyfriend, and are given a tip that seems to confirm their suspicions. Long story short, he’s convicted and has been in prison ever since, all the while maintaining his innocence. Much remains unanswered and there are many people who feel that he was wrongly convicted. I’ll stop there with the details, I don’t want to spoil anything and the show is better at explaining it anyway. I think the more interesting aspects of this show are not the cell phone records, or endless police interview tapes, but rather the peak it gives us into just how complex real life (and real crimes) can be.

Everyone in this story, including the man convicted of murder, is sympathetic. They are also all highly suspect. This is in large part due to the intense scrutiny placed on every single detail, and there are lots of details. No one’s life can stand up to that kind of study. The minutia washes over you like a wave, its almost too much at times. But it really makes you feel like you know these people. All those random bits also have a way of keeping you hooked. “Could that be it? Is that the clue that’ll break this case?” We have all been so programmed by movies and TV shows that we can spot the killer in act one, and we can guess which clues matter and which ones don’t. All those scripted formulas don’t apply to Serial, some times a random detail is just a random detail. It makes for a rich story but a maddening puzzle, which I guess is the same thing.

The second piece that makes this show so compelling is that they are making it as they go. They were still investigating when they started airing episodes. So they themselves don’t even know the outcome. Its like a true crime investigation being broadcast in real time. By the end they even have witnesses contacting them because they heard the show. Its odd, but very exciting. You feel as if you are along for the hunt, and the host doesn’t know anymore than you do.

Its also a strange thing to try and put yourself back in 1999. Cell phones are not that common with high schoolers, cars don’t have GPS, and social media doesn’t exist. Investigators now would just check Facebook and see who checked in where to create a timeline of events, but back then it was all just witness testimony. Every kid now would have a dozen selfies from lunch that are geotagged with their exact coordinates. But back then it was “I think they left together, or maybe separate, I’m not sure.” This limits the paper trail, which limits verifiable facts. This can feel very cool, they have to actually go interview people like old school detectives. But sometimes its just annoying, why don’t they just check her- oh right she didn’t have a cell phone. An 18 year old girl who didn’t have a cell phone, so strange.

If you watched The Killing you’d swear they got the idea for that show from this podcast. If you like old school radio dramas or Prairie Home Companion you’ll like this show. If you also happened to enjoy Truman Capote’s writing you’ll like it even more. The ambiguity of this show is part of the reason its so frustrating, and so addictive. I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

PS: The SNL sketch parodying it could not have been more perfect, be sure to look that up too.

TopherSerial: Podcasting a Puzzle

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