Why ‘Serial’ Season Two Was Such a Flop
Every once in a while, a creative work takes the world by storm in a way that nobody really expects. Last year, the “sleeper hit” that was on everybody’s mind was the first season of “Serial,” a podcast brought to us by Sarah Koenig and the good people at National Public Radio (NPR). It told a harrowing story of murder, guilty pleas and attempted appeals — and in doing so, either directly or indirectly threw the book wide open again on a case that’s been closed for many years.
Throughout the series, people all over the United States were asked to listen closely, look over the evidence and fit the pieces together — the pieces of a puzzle that prosecutors had ostensibly finished long ago, and in doing so had condemned a potentially innocent man to an ignominious fate.
And, so, it’s no wonder the story caught on the way it did. “True crime” stories — in particular the variety that involve mistaken identities and/or miscarriages of justice — have always been popular, and likely always will be. “Serial” became one of the most downloaded podcasts ever, and left fans clamoring for more, for just this reason.
And yet, when Season Two finally made its debut in December of 2015, it was received much more coolly than its first installment had been. The sequel, rather than attempting to recapture the fire that made the first story so compelling, shifted gears entirely, and offered up a story ripped from current-day headlines.
The man at the center of these events is Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl — a once-respected member of the armed forces who now finds himself at the center of a massive controversy, and potential desertion charges.
But whereas, in Season One, Adnan’s real-life case was complemented in a very real way by the podcast treatment, the second season of “Serial” feels quite a bit less essential to understanding the case it explores. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
The Nature of the Case, and Where the Public Stands
One potential reason why this second season didn’t quite capture the public’s imagination is the nature of the case itself. By comparison, Season One felt disarmingly personal. It involved an up-close and personal murder — the murder of a high school student, no less. Like many other cases before and since, the murder of Hae Min Lee had all of us wondering what might drive each of us to a crime of passion, and whether Lee’s boyfriend, Adnan Syed, could possibly be guilty, thanks to the available evidence. It also stoked our almost primeval fears about justice run amok. Nobody listening to the first season of “Serial” didn’t spend at least a few minutes — and perhaps even longer — wondering about how they’d cope with a prison sentence they didn’t earn. It felt real and visceral.
For the second season, showrunner Sarah Koenig teamed up with Mark Boal (the screenwriter who brought us “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) to tell the story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl’s story is both tragic and strange. The sergeant had previously been held as a prisoner of war by the Taliban for an unthinkable five years (2009 to 2014), and was later brought up on court martial charges of desertion. The big question surrounding his capture, release, and later charges have to do with why Bergdahl left his base in the first place in 2009 before being captured. Some of his colleagues allege that he was attempting to defect or desert, and that led to his capture and lengthy captivity. He was later recovered by the US government by trading captives that were being held at Guantanamo Bay.
This is, at least on the surface, a somewhat less “sexy” story than the one featured in the first season of “Serial.” Military desertions, or the possibility of same, surely hit home for some not-inconsiderable portion of the American electorate, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that the content here is not quite as personal, compelling or disturbing as the subtleties and twists of Syed’s harrowing journey through the courts of public opinion. Let’s go a step further: America’s unpopular wars throughout the Middle East have gone on for so long, and have made so little difference, that most people don’t really think about them that much anymore. We’ve grown a stubborn callus against anything to do with perpetual war, and putting a personal face on it — a face like Bergdahl’s — doesn’t really make these familiar stories automatically compelling any more — it just makes it sadder.
Meanwhile, the did-he-or-didn’t-he murder mystery of Season One now somehow feels like innocent escapism: A balm for our wounded national pride. A ray of sunshine — maybe this man will rectify the terrible perversion of justice brought against him! — rather than “just another” story about how disillusioned we all are, on a fundamental level, with the world’s pointless, ongoing wars.
And yet, Bergdahl’s case remains a compelling one — at least, beyond the context of the podcast. At the end of 2014, some 73 percent of Americans believed the the good Sergeant should be brought up on criminal charges of desertion.
That’s a huge majority. And it’s little wonder — most of us consider pride in our country to be one of our highest ideals. But it’s unsurprising for another reason: The facts, while important to this case, are not nearly as uncertain as they were in the story of Adnan Syed.
The Promise of Closure
And yet, the nature of these facts is another reason why “Serial” faltered this season. Whereas the first season felt like it was building up to some significant breakthrough — and mostly delivered on its promises by the end — Season Two does not perform the same hat trick, because it cannot do so. The facts we most want to hear about are not going to be found by podcast writers or armchair detectives — they’re located exclusively within the mind of one Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
To put it more simply, the showrunners weren’t privy to a lot of the information that could help us make sense of the Bergdahl case, because the case is still unfolding. We want to digest this story like a scripted piece of entertainment, but the script had to be written piece by piece, with no clear resolution available, either then or since. Readers, viewers and listeners of all types of entertainment media are remarkably willing to be patient with the careful stripping away of the layers of intrigue, uncertainty and obfuscation if they can be assured there’s something truly remarkable waiting for them at the end. But how do you reward the patience of modern fandom when you can offer them neither mystery nor closure?
At the same time, though, the story of Season Two is a fundamentally different beast because the facts themselves are, quite simply, not as important. Whereas Season One encouraged listeners to pore over evidence and testimony in the hopes of coming to some practical, real-world conclusion about the case, Season Two asks us to put away our index cards and notebooks and turn inward instead. It’s simply less fun.
In this way, Season Two feels just a little bit darker, somehow — it confronts questions that cut to the heart of the human condition. Questions like Why would a decorated soldier [allegedly] desert his colleagues? and What must it have been like to be captured by the enemy? These are very real, very troubling questions — and they actually ask quite a bit more of us than some of Season One’s questions, which included: What does this cell phone evidence really say about the case?
Season One turned us all into armchair detectives, asking us to get out of our heads and turn outward to pore over the evidence. Instead of following up with more of the same, Season Two asked us to lie down on a therapist’s couch. Is it possible that Season Two fell a bit flat because people were expecting a jigsaw puzzle and instead received a Rorschach test? It’s certainly possible.
Just for good measure, there’s another reason why “Serial” had such a big swing and a miss this season: People are simply sick of headlines.
There’s something refreshing about a story that comes to us from a distance of years, as Syed’s did in Season One. It feels safer — less emotionally taxing — despite the very real and grisly details. To put it another way, we all have headline fatigue to one extent or another. In another time and place, the phrase Ripped from today’s headlines! might stand a good chance of roping in enthusiastic new viewers or listeners, but these days — who needs it with all this reality? Who wants another story about our failed wars? Who wants to hear about Guantanamo Bay even one more time?
Are these important issues? Do they ask important questions about our culture and society? Of course they do. As to whether they make for compelling entertainment when we’re already beaten down by the mainstream media’s harping on them … that’s another story entirely.
At the end of the day, most of us listen to podcasts because we want to be entertained. Whether Season Two is entertaining for the right reasons is a little less clear than it was for Season One.