On February 9th, 2015, CBS News reported that NPR’s podcast Serial had been downloaded more than 68 million times. Since concluding its run on December 18th, 2014, Serial has occupied the #1 slot of the iTunes top podcasts list for four months. It took that spot even before it debuted. It broke records as the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads, and was lauded in the New York Times as “Podcasting’s first break out hit.” Serial was huge. You couldn’t miss it. I couldn’t either.
“One story, told week by week” was how Ira Glass explained Serial when it first aired on This American Life. It was all there in the title: Serial. As in serialized drama. In 2014, as consumers, we were living in a golden age of revitalized serialized drama, but this was a new slant on the staling formula – it was journalistic, even investigative.
Documentaries originated as an industrial medium for journalists to explain their findings. Now, they serve as creative powerhouses of opinion and entertainment. At first, a modern documentary could reach millions of people. Now, it can reach millions of people and their wallets. Still, despite the myriad of biased, entertainment focused documentaries that the last ten years of yielded–think Jesus Camp, Food Inc, and Supersize Me–I have never encountered something as morally bankrupt as Serial.The first red flag was how hard the team at This American Life worked to sell the premise of Serial. It was a serialized drama, to be dispersed one tantalizing bit at a time. It would feature cliffhangers. It would have villains. We would discover the truth along with our investigators. All of these things feel great to me with fictional drama. The problem with Serial was that it was real. This dramatic show, this tantalizing labyrinth of villains and cliffhangers was the real experiences of people that had been hurt and victimized in so many ways. To do it again in order to tell a riveting story seemed so unaware of it’s own irony that it felt like borderline parody.