Why Are We So Obsessed With the Serial Podcast?

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Maggie Niemiec
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Confession: I am obsessed with the Serial podcast.

I’ve never been one for public radio. I always struggled with those pesky listening exams in high school. And audio books are about as appealing to me as hemp milk. I am a visual learner. I prefer to read stories right in front of me, one page at a time. Yet, somehow, I’ve become completely captivated by Serial.

For those unfamiliar with the podcast, Serial unfolds one nonfiction story week by week for the course of 12 episodes. This debut season centers around the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school senior Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested and convicted of life in prison. Syed has maintained his innocence for the last 15 years, and the case against him was based almost solely on the testimony of one witness. Host and executive producer Sarah Koenig has been investigating the case for the past year; her recorded interviews make up the podcast—a riveting, complicated, and often confusing story.

Which is what has me hooked. I “binge-listened” (yes, that’s a thing) to the first few episodes and found myself popping in my headphones any chance I could get. In fact, I started the podcast just last week, and I’ve managed to catch up just in time for this week’s season finale.

I’m not the only one. Serial has somehow transcended all boundaries—and has quickly become the most popular podcast in the world, as well as the fastest to reach five million downloads in the United States. In the words of The New York Times, Serial is podcasting’s first breakout hit. Everyone is listening—people of all ages, races, and genders.

All this begs the question, Why? Why now? Why this series? What makes it so special?

For all its setup as a whodunit murder mystery, as the weeks have unfolded one thing has become clear to me: This goes beyond wanting an answer, or even savoring the plot, and is more about uncovering a piece of our humanity.

One thing that I keep having to remind myself is that these are not characters in a book. These are real people. This is real life. This is a real crime. And just as the best fiction provides insight into the human condition, perhaps reality—real life, not “reality TV”—provides us with even better insight.

Heck, just look at our culture today and you’ll see how much we long for authenticity and genuineness. Documentaries are having a moment (just look at the genre on Netflix) and fiction films look more like documentaries. We scroll through Instagram and Twitter for a supposedly accurate glimpse into someone’s private life. We eat up tabloids for that personal connection with celebs, to know that they are “just like us.”

We long to see the human nature within every story—whether in the news or in movies or in this podcast.

Koenig expertly weaves a narrative of Did he? Or didn’t he? throughout the series. A real-life murder mystery that sheds light on the inner workings of our justice system—as well as some of the biggest questions of all, “How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of?

These are valid questions and probably the most, well, annoying part about Serial. It takes more than a year of reporting, 12 episodes of intense listening, and we’re still left to question whether we know any of these people. At one point Syed says to Koenig, "I mean you don't even really know me... Maybe you do. I mean, we only talk on the phone." They’ve had hours-long conversations, multiple times a week, for an entire year.

In episode 11, Koenig asks Syed about his past, specifically about stealing from his mosque back in high school. Koenig is trying to see the whole picture of Syed. But we hear him get defensive for the first time. Why wouldn’t he? His entire life has been put on display, and by this point he probably knows the wild popularity of the podcast about him. I’m sure he also recognizes that, whether guilty or innocent, this podcast probably won’t change his predicament.

Which is an uncomfortable reality of Serial. I didn’t get a sneak peek at the ending, so I’m writing this without knowing how episode 12 concludes, but I have a feeling that we aren’t going to get a clear-cut answer—and that’s unsettling. We want a meaningful conclusion, tied-up loose ends, happily ever after—or at least a clear-cut The End, even if not the outcome we hoped for. In fact, our brains are constantly trying to sort out the why in a situation in order to make sense of it all.

Except Serial isn’t some scripted drama. We can’t really complain about the characters or the way the story plays out as we would a season of Downton Abbey. This is real life—unfiltered, raw human nature.

But I need an ending! Who are these people, for real? What makes me (and I’m sure millions of others) frustrated is that, honestly, we may never know. It’s one of those pesky realities of life: We can never really know something (or someone) fully in this life, however close we may get.

All the same, it doesn’t take away the thrill of the pursuit, especially when real-life justice is on the line. Even if a conclusion is not reached, there's value to the journey, and not just the destination, as the cliche goes. If season one of the Serial podcast tells us anything, it’s that the human stories matter most of all.

And that’s what has me on the edge of my seat, eager to tune in to season two, as the next story develops.