Podcast Review: Serial, Season 2

Ok so you’ve almost certainly heard of Serial already and the second season has just ended. So why review it now? Well two reasons. Firstly this blog wasn’t around at the start of the season and secondly I thought it would be interesting to take a bit of a retrospective look at the series now that it has finished.

The second season has come in for some criticism for not being as good as the first. That hasn’t been an issue for me as I was a little late to the party with Serial. Whilst I’d heard all the great things about the first series, I hadn’t listened to it and therefore came to it fresh. So here are my thoughts, untainted by any comparisons with the earlier work.

What’s the concept?

Serial is a documentary series, from the team who produce popular podcast This American Life. What makes this series unique is that the entire season is devoted to one topic, with the story told over 10 hour-long episodes. Clearly that’s a very long time indeed, allowing a really in-depth look at the topic.

What has been the subject of Season 2?

This season has been devoted to the story of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who walked away from his post in Afghanistan, only to be captured and held hostage for 5 years. The story has been headline news in America, but much less so in Europe.

What’s good about Serial?

Serial has been an immensely popular podcast, and for very good reason. The concept allows you to get completely under the skin of the subject topic, so it feels more like reading a really comprehensive book rather than just getting a quick overview, like you would with a standard TV documentary.

As well as having very slick production standards, it is thoroughly researched. One thing it does especially well is to allow plenty of airtime to both sides of a story rather than to impose a particular point of view. The series constantly makes you think about every aspect of the story and invite you to think about where you stand on the various controversies discussed.

Most of all, it is a fascinating story. I have to say, I’m someone who has very little interest in American soldiers or the conflict in Afghanistan so if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to get much past the first episode of the series. But the story is so well told by Sarah Koenig and her team that it really reels you in.

The podcast is also backed up by a fantastic website, with lots of material which really adds depth and extra understanding to each episode, with maps, photographs and other resources.

What doesn’t work so well?

When the season launched, new episodes were released on a weekly basis. The story was sufficiently fascinating – especially at first, with the intrigue and suspense around the Bergdahl’s decision to walk off his post and his subsequent capture – that I would really look forward to each new episode being released.

But in the New Year, the decision was taken to slow down the release schedule, with a new episode out every two weeks. This was reported to be necessary in order to allow further research time, but the two week gap between episodes was a major problem for the series. It became something to listen to every now and then, rather than being a weekly event and somehow it became much less compulsive listening. It didn’t help that the story had also started to become less compelling by that point, with the documentary being focused more on the aftermath and why things happened as they did. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting, but the suspense levels dropped significantly.

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