Why Did Serial Become So Popular?

When my best friend started telling me about the breakout podcast Serial a few months ago, I was skeptical. I’m not a huge fan of podcasts in general. Not to sound grandmotherly or like I don’t know how technology works, but I couldn’t really 100% figure out what they were. And then once I did, the notion of opting into what I thought was basically talk radio for more than 15 minutes seemed incredibly unattractive.

But in the weeks since personally becoming obsessed with Serial, and especially since hearing about this insanely popular podcast everywhere from social media to traditional media outlets to overheard conversations in random cafes and bars, it’s been interesting to me that this podcast has become so huge. I mean, what is it that makes Serial so incredibly interesting?

In pondering the answer to this monumental question, there is the obvious: Humans are inherently curious about things that they aren’t often exposed to. Within that category is any number of weird facts that click-bate links rely on (10 Things to Know Just by Looking at Your Fingernails; 5 Things You Didn’t Know Were in Fast Food; etc.) but also the less pleasant, and the things that we don’t immediately comprehend: assault, murder, rape.

In our society, where shows like Law & Order (all spin-offs included), CSI, and countless murder mystery series reign supreme, it’s a small wonder that people immediately flocked to a podcast based on the same subject matter—but real.

Throughout the podcast’s run I felt conflicted (as host Sarah Koenig even admits herself a few times) regarding the ethics of rehashing a murder mystery that actually occurred. After all, these are real people with real lives that were actually unhinged by the horrific murder of a young girl. They’re not Hollywood actors who are moving on to their next series after this episode. And the detectives involved aren’t Olivia Benson or Horatio Caine. They’re not detectives wearing wire-framed sunglasses delivering double-entendres, and they’re not questioning witnesses who have an uncanny memory of what they were doing six weeks beforehand.

But isn’t that what makes it so morbidly fascinating?

Again, as humans, we’re driven towards things that we don’t understand. Our inclination is to make sense of things that, at first glance, don’t make sense. We want to solve the puzzle. We want to learn a pattern, a rule. And in listening to this podcast, you really give your brain a workout trying to make sense of who committed this murder and why.

Additionally, I suppose if there’s another thing that Serial does, for better or worse, it gives us a look at a murder trial and the effects thereafter under a lens that we aren’t usually privy to looking through. People lying, people telling the truth, coincidences, red tape, rules, laws, and alibis. Outside of the (let’s just say it) boring courtroom shows that we see when there’s a high-profile murder case, we usually don’t get to see these kinds of things. And honestly, when we do, everything is (or tries to be) cut and dry and totally unbiased in the interest of a clear verdict.

The other thing that makes Serial so incredibly fascinating is not only the testimonial of the dozens of people that knew Adnan or Jay or Hae, which is admittedly introspective, but also the input of our ally Sarah Koenig. A clear-headed but clearly emotive person, Koenig doesn’t need the flash of special effects or the pumped up drama of television. We’re interested because she presents the case in plain terms, but in a way akin to a story that you might hear from a friend or a neighbor, without excessive jargon. And that holds our interest.

With Serial’s quiet conclusion yesterday, I’ve heard a dozen different theories on how the true crime unfolded from a dozen different people, I’ve read over the Reddit dedicated to solving the case, and (most obviously) I’ve listened to the entire podcast—some episodes more than once. But while I still question the morality of digging up an old murder case and bringing people into the spotlight when sometimes they’d rather remain in the shadows, the fact still remains: you can bet that I’ll be listening to Season 2. TC mark

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