Super Serial

When I originally sat down to write this post about This American Life spin-off podcast, Serial, I meant to write something completely different. But I realized two things:

  1. Some of you are probably already listening.
  2. If you aren’t listening, the only thing I want to say to you is YOU SHOULD BE.

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You should be, because the story is totally compelling. When it was first announced, I didn’t plan to listen to it at all (I already listen to/am chronically behind on enough podcasts!) But I was listening to TAL and they played the first episode of Serial, and I driving around in my car so I couldn’t reach down and change the episode. Ten minutes later, I was hooked. Ten weeks later, I’m tweeting:

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Because I’ve gotten so sucked in, I’ve been following stories about the show and there are two distinct threads: Discussion about the case that Serial is reporting; Discussion about the podcast itself.

I don’t want to say anything about the story in case you aren’t listening — but the story about the podcast is equally interesting to me. It’s become a huge sensation and developed a massive following – the first podcast to take off like this.

My personal opinion is that it’s taken off in popularity not only because the case is interesting, but because of the serialized format.

Serial was discussed on my *other* favorite podcast recently, TBTL, with Alex Blumberg (another voice I know from TAL who recently launched an excellent new podcast.) “This kind of thing wouldn’t be possible on terrestrial radio,” Blumberg said, and compared it to what’s happened in TV recently.

I had a bit of a flashback when he said that – in one of my college English classes, I read Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. I went home and dug out my worn, dogeared, heavily notated copy and flipped through it again.

Johnson’s argument in the book is that popular culture has grown increasingly complex and intellectually stimulating in recent years, and though we’ve criticized things like:

  • Fantasy football and baseball teams
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Video games
  • Modern television shows
  • Rapidly changing technologies

as being bad for us as individuals and bad for our society in general, they actually serve as a kind of “positive brainwashing.” Johnson describes this as “a Brave New World [where] somas and ‘feelies’ are actually good for us.”

Part of his argument (the part that most speaks to me) is how television has changed over time. When we watch modern TV shows, he says, the most important parts of the plot happen off-screen, so we as viewers have to do more work to follow along and figure out what’s happening. This makes for more interesting, more engaging entertainment.

Some narratives force you to do work to make sense of them … Part of that cognitive work comes from following multiple threads, keeping often densely interwoven plotlines distinct in your head as you watch. But another part involves the viewer’s ‘filling in': making sense of information that has been either deliberately withheld or deliberately left obscure.

Johnson’s argument hinges on this point – these new forms of media make us think differently – better – and teach us to use “systems analysis, probability theory, pattern recognition, and – amazingly enough – old-fashioned patience [as] tools to make sense of modern pop culture.”

One of the shows he uses as an example is my all-time favorite, Arrested Development. To be honest, the first time I watched it, I thought it was terrible, because the friends who told me how amazing it was(is) didn’t bother to tell me to start at episode one.

The most delightful aspect of the show is what Johnson would call the complexity: the narrative arc that underlies each season, and the density of the inside jokes. Watch one episode out of context and you miss how cleverly the episodes work together as chapters of a larger story.

Actually, Arrested Development is an interesting case because last spring, seven years after its cancellation, they created a straight-to-Netflix 4th season. I’ve been meaning to write more about it, and still want to, so I don’t want to get too into that discussion today, but what I want to say didn’t work about that most recent season is exactly what works for the Serial podcast: downtime.

When the new Arrested Development episodes were released, creator Mitch Hurwitz implored viewers not to “binge watch:” exactly what they wanted to do (and exactly what Netflix allowed them to do) – watch every new episode back to back in a single sitting.

Hurwitz expected his viewers to, after waiting seven years for the new episodes, watch them as though they were airing weekly on traditional TV.

Serial is posting one new episode each week, and in the early weeks of the podcast, Serial received feedback that listeners wished the episodes had been released after all 12 were complete, because they wanted to “binge listen.” But the weekly, serialized format actually works to their advantage.

Tuning in week after week is powerful for listeners because it gives us time to mull over what happened last week and listen again to previous episodes. It forces us to keep the characters and details straight in our heads. We have to do the work of what Johnson calls “filling in.”

Although serialized radio is not new, podcasts are (relatively speaking), and this one successfully takes advantage of the format. As Johnson says in Everything Bad Is Good For You, new technologies challenge us to think differently. Learning how to consume a new form of media is as helpful in making us smarter as “filling in” and attempting to solve the case.

Engaging listeners, making them “fill in,” is what’s developed such a huge following for the show. As host Sarah Koenig said in last week’s episode, it’s in our nature as humans.

“We act as detectives all the time, gathering evidence. Certain scenes we remember or the look on someone’s face or that thing he said when he got mad. And then we act as judge of character. It’s just a human thing.”

And because there’s now this huge group of devoted followers, and a 15 year old case is once again making headlines, there’s a very real possibility that the podcast will affect the real life outcome of the story.

I can’t imagine how different the story would be if all 12 episodes had been released at the same time – having a week between every episode has created a sort of feedback loop. Koeing has spent time on each of the recent episodes discussing points that have been made on the show’s subreddit, or news stories that were published between episodes airing.

Despite that, I’m a little jealous of all those who have not yet begun listening and will be able to “binge listen” to the entire first season. The waiting, as Tom Petty sang, is the hardest part. It will be very interesting to see whether those listeners get as sucked into the story as those of us who started listening when the earliest episodes were released.

And if you’re not listening yet, now is a great time to start: the final episode of this season will be released on Thursday.

Addendum: The same day I wrote this post, Slate published an article about what makes podcasts addictive. It’s worth a read, if you haven’t already.

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