Serial Season 2: Continuing Truth in Crime Entertainment

PFC Bowe Bergdahl — public domain image. U.S. Army

PFC Bowe Bergdahl — public domain image. U.S. Army

The Serial podcast is back for a second season, exploring the difficulty of investigating not just fact, but motive.

Crime entertainment has occupied a huge place in pop culture for a long time, and has reached extraordinary popularity over the last fifteen years, with shows like CSI and NCIS each spending time as the top-rated show on television. These shows have largely been wildly inaccurate portrayals of how criminal justice works, although they have actually affected our judicial system, by raising jurors’ expectations about the quality of forensic evidence.

See “Is the ‘CSI Effect’ Influencing Courtrooms? (NPR)

Last year, however, there was a notable exception to this when the Serial podcast stormed pop culture and scored the largest audience in the history of podcasting. Here was a piece of compelling crime entertainment focused on the realities of criminal investigations. It left listeners impatiently waiting to hear even the most mundane details about the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland.

Over the course of 12 hour-long episodes, the show’s creator, Sarah Koenig, took her audience through the original investigation, even as she uncovered new information about the case. The show whetted people’s appetites for what a criminal investigation is really like — with all its twists and turns, laborious document searches, inconclusive interviews, and painful uncertainties.

Now, Serial is back for a second season covering a new case, and with that, it is time to look at how this season might affect public perception of the investigative world.

A New Case to Unravel

The first episode Serial’s second season arrived without advance warning early on the morning of December 10th. I found out about the first season fairly early on and got to watch its popularity explode. At first, I would hear a few people talk about it occasionally, with more and more people catching on with each new episode that was released.

Season two was a different story. I found out about the new episode’s release via a Twitter notification saying that multiple people I follow were tweeting about it. By the time I got to work at 7:00 AM, many of my coworkers were already talking about how excited they were for the new season. Many of us took 44 minutes out of our morning to plug in headphones and listen.

The second season will cover the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army soldier who left his outpost in Afghanistan and was then captured and held prisoner by the Taliban for five years before being released in a prisoner exchange in 2014. There are many conflicting theories about why Bergdahl left his base. Some people believe he is a traitor and was aiding the Taliban. Others have speculated that he had some type of mental breakdown. Bergdahl claims that his plan was to travel over 18 miles from his outpost, OP Mest, to his base, FOB Sharana, to share his concerns about incompetence in leadership above him.

See a Taliban video of Bowe Bergdahl’s release.

A huge part of what makes Serial’s second season exciting from an investigative standpoint is the scope of its new investigation. Whereas the first season dealt with the difficulties of uncovering information from 15 years ago, in an era before people created a substantial digital trail, the second season explores a more recent case, at a time when information is everywhere.


A More Open Age of Information

This increased access to information has profoundly changed investigations in many ways. On one hand, digital trails are incredibly effective tools for the investigator since, unlike physical evidence, once something is online it never really disappears. On the other hand, connectivity runs both ways, leaving even governments vulnerable to cyberattack. Thus, cybersecurity is an industry in desperate need of growth; many of these attacks, such as “doxing,” are investigative techniques taken to an extreme level.

Further complicating the issue is that these tactics are not always used maliciously, but sometimes are done in the interest of transparency. Cases like Edward Snowden‘s and Chelsea Manning‘s have raised questions about what information should be made public or kept classified. And now Serial, through its massive following, will be adding to that conversation — because of Bergdahl’s claim that his actions were basically that of a whistleblower. And that conversation has become highly politicized.

Central to the founding principal of Pursuit is that investigations should be free of such politicization: “Pursuit is about fact over fiction, information over gossip, and data over hearsay.” These are fundamentals that the investigative world is built upon. But in a case like Bergdahl’s — involving ideological issues of government transparency, national security, and how to wage war against jihadism — an investigation becomes murkier, with questions of not only fact, but also of motive and purpose.

And while, yes, the Bergdahl case is already a large news story being widely covered, many people are going to take a greater interest in it because of Serial.

A World of Investigators

The first season of Serial brought greater public awareness to many of the realities of America’s criminal justice system and criminal investigations. It turned everyday people into PIs, examining evidence and formulating theories that they would then share with their friends and coworkers. These conversations have actually brought new details in Syed’s case to light, and seem to have been instrumental in aspects of his case being reopened.

Early on, it seems that this second season will continue this, but with a much different focus. Serial’s listeners seemed to identify with Adnan Syed’s case because it was so intensely personal. It was a reminder of the brutality that exists in everyday life, and showcased how investigations can bring these truths to the surface.

But with their choice to look at the Bergdahl case, Serial is hoping to shine a light on investigations dealing with large, often secretive institutions like militaries and governments, and to ask whether what goes on there belongs in the public consciousness or behind closed doors. It is contributing to ongoing conversations about what governments do in secret and how we should perceive those who try to expose this information.

As with Adnan Syed, the Bergdahl case is still unfolding. There will likely be many questions still unanswered about Bowe Bergdahl by season’s end, but that uncertainty only makes for a more compelling story. After all, that’s the very nature of any investigation; you can never be sure what you may find, and what will remain a mystery.

About the author:

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Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners.

You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyMEvans