Review: 'Serial' returns, ambiguous as ever, with Bowe Bergdahl story
To the surprise and delight of many a podcast listener, the premiere of "Serial" season 2 appeared out of the ether this morning. I wrote about the first season in the context of its resemblance to a TV crime drama, and then about the ambiguity of its finale, and I have a few thoughts on the season 2 premiere coming up just as soon as this child murder has been really great for Mail Crimp...
Last year, "Serial" snuck up on everyone, even longtime fans of producer/star Sarah Koenig's work on "This American Life," of which "Serial" is a spin-off. Nobody involved with the show anticipated it becoming so big, generating sub-Reddits devoted to solving the murder of Hae Min Lee, inspiring people who knew Hae and/or her Adnan to emerge as new sources, multiple parodies, and more. It returns as a phenomenon, and the scale of the story has ramped up to match the popularity of the show. Hae's murder was a 15-year-old local story that even most people in Baltimore had likely forgotten about by the time "Serial" revisited it. The Bowe Bergdahl case has been national news on and off for the last year and a half, which would seem to make this an odd choice as a follow-up subject to Adnan's case, except...
...as Koenig notes in the first episode, the public knows remarkably little about the details of Bergdahl's time in Afghanistan, and even the soldiers who served with Bergdahl don't all agree about exactly what happened or why he walked out into the desert that night. There's ambiguity here, in the same way there was with Adnan's case. Had Adnan been a man who had obviously been convicted of a crime he didn't commit, that might have inspired a small amount of outrage, but there wouldn't have been enough narrative thrust to keep the podcasting world spellbound for weeks and weeks as we wondered what exactly happened. There were huge gaps in that story, only some of which Koenig and her collaborators were ultimately able to fill, which kept the hook baited over the course of the season but resulted in a finale that frustrated at least some of the audience. The outlines of the Bergdahl case suggest similar qualities: there may be ways to prove or disprove some of Bergdahl's claims about the command structure that he claims was dangerous enough to inspire him to leave his post, or to support other soldiers' claims that he had gone too native, but it's hard to imagine Koenig building an airtight case either way. But then, expecting a journalist to do a defense lawyer's job (or a prosecutor's) has never seemed entirely fair.
There's also ambiguity in the new season's relationship with Mark Boal, who's making a film about Bergdahl, and whose taped conversations with him form the spine of the new season in the same way Koenig's phone discussions with Adnan did in season 1. Koenig insists that the podcast isn't involved with the movie, but production entities involved in the movie are listed in the "Serial" credits, which can at least create the illusion that Boal is looking at "Serial" as long-tail viral marketing for his film. Conversely, though, "Serial" could wind up revealing enough of the details that will be part of the movie that the actual feature feels redundant.
So there's a lot to keep an eye on as "Serial" tries to follow up its incredible debut. Will it be "Fargo" season 2 or "True Detective" season 2? "Paul's Boutique" or "Fairweather Johnson"?
What did everybody else think of the return? Does the subject matter interest you as much as the true crime framing of the first season? Are you annoyed with the tweaks to the theme song, or just relieved that "Mail... Kimp?" Lady and "I Use Mail Chimp" Lady are still a part of your lives?