Serial ended today.
Just in case you’re as aware of the non-popculture side of the Internet like I usually am, Serial is the spin-off podcast of WBEZ’s This American Life. While that would be my cue to tune out, enough people I know and respect were recommending this podcast that I caved into the peer pressure and tried it out.
The voice of Sarah Koenig is our guide through one story told over the course of a season. That’s the pitch of Serial. While that is an interesting concept, the hook of Serial is that this first season’s story is the murder investigation, trial and conviction of Adnan Syed, an investigation with some shaky details and vague answers that don’t so much as paint a picture of who murdered Hae Lee as meander in circles.
For the past eleven weeks we have heard Ms. Koenig mull over the case, interview those involved, and seek professional assistance to see whether or not Adnan was justly convicted and if the years he’s spent in prison were deserved.
Now we have the final episode. The end of the story. Resolution.
Whether you love it, hate it, or simply don’t care, Serial has caught the podcast world ablaze and I loved this season start to nearly finish. Unfortunately, Serial did not stick the landing.
Before I go any further, expect full spoilers for this season of Serial, because whether or not the show has any other problems in insignificant, my only issue, the only thing I’m going to talk about is the end.
Almost as expected, we don’t have an answer to whether or not Adnan Syed murdered Hae Lee. I have no problem that the end of the story Serial covered is open ended and vague. I take issue with how and where Ms. Koenig chose to end her coverage.
Open ended conclusions, vague, unknowable endings aren’t the sign of a bad story. If anything, they make them more like life. If Adnan wasn’t proven innocent, his story couldn’t end until his death as he would still be living it. How could we expect the podcast to end any different?
What was completely unexpected was that in the final episode would we be given to of the most important details of the whole story and then left hanging. This isn’t so much the ending of No Country for Old Men as the second season finale of Twin Peaks. You do not end the first season of a podcast self described as one story told over a season by informing us that the student legal team, who was introduced as a team that specifically looks at old cases that may have been misconvicted, were in legal power to reexamine DNA evidence that could completely change the suspect, and that there was potentially a serial rapist and murderer in the area during the time period of the murder.
That is not the end of a story. It could be the motivating action for the beginning of a story. It could be the final act twist that reveals the true ending. But it’s not an ending.
The worse part is, multiple times Ms. Koenig has said during the show that this is the product of over a year of research. This isn’t something the people at NPR looked at from week to week and simply ran out of episodes to keep covering. The case is being reexamined by people who can shut the book on it. All we have to do for a proper ending is wait for their results.
This isn’t the latest million dollar sitcom that has had months of advertising all pointing towards a release date. This is a podcast released by NPR. So why does it feel like this show was rushed to meet a schedule instead of given time in service of the story?
I don’t know why Ms. Koenig chose to end this season the way she did. All I can do is speculate. And all that speculation, every end I can think of, all I can do is assume that said year of researching, recording, and producing was budgeted for this story to come to a conclusion today, regardless of whether or not is serves the story. It’s a conclusion I don’t want because it’s one I expected NPR to be better than.
Regardless of how disappointing I found the end of Serial, this is still a show I cannot wait to hear another season of. This is the show that resulted in my most hipster/old man action ever in donating to NPR because I wanted to support a second season. Sarah Koenig found something fascinating in this formula and I want to see what happens when it covers a different story.
So yes, the end of Serial’s first story was bad. But a bad ending doesn’t ruin a good story. I’ve seen enough horror movies to understand that. Let’s just hope that season 2 learns from this.