Serial series 3: A modest show with much to be modest about

Review: The long-form US crime podcast has gone back to basics. A little too basic, actually

As Serial, the long-form American crime story podcast, drops on devices for its third series, fans may be forgiven for curbing their enthusiasm. Back in December 2015, the second series of American podcast was greeted with such hype and anticipation that it was bound to disappoint. And so it did, relatively speaking at least.

Serial was a cultural phenomenon after it debuted in 2014, as narrator and producer Sarah Koenig's forensic yet twisty recounting of an obscure murder case gripped listeners over 12 episodes.

But in a classic case of difficult second album syndrome, the next season's focus on the high-profile case of US Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl failed to capture the public's imagination in the same way. In the quietly damning verdict of the Guardian, it ended up as "a podcast for journalists by journalists".

Having been weighed down by great expectations last time around, the new run of Serial is more of a modest proposal. Rather than concentrate on one compelling case, it instead recounts multiple stories of a less dramatic stripe. In a tacit admission that the Bergdahl story misfired, this season takes its cue from the debut season, by concentrating on the American criminal justice system.


But instead of doing this by meticulously examining the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, as in the first run, the new canvas is far broader, as Koenig covers the workings of the sprawling justice centre in Cleveland, Ohio.

Opening the first of the two episodes so far, Koenig explains that despite being constantly asked what the Lee case said about the US justice system, she was unable to answer. Syed’s wobbly conviction, currently the subject of a retrial, is not typical of the vast number of cases in America, she says. To get an accurate picture of how the system works, or doesn’t, she wants to look at “ordinary cases”.

The choice of the industrial Midwestern city of Cleveland as the central location fits this requirement for the prosaic, though Koenig admits it was also chosen because unlike many states, Ohio allows taping in court.

On one level, the new season is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a modest series with much to be modest about. The opening episode follows the case of Anna, a young woman who, having had her behind repeatedly slapped at a bar, ended up in a brawl during which she accidentally punched a policeman. In her trademark conversational style, Koenig follows Anna and her lugubrious lawyer Russ Bensing as they try to get her acquitted of what seems to be a patently unfair charge.

Along the way, there are many telling observations, largely on the racial dynamics of the courts. While the majority of defendants are African-American, as are most of the clerical staff, nearly everyone at the top of the legal hierarchy is white. (And not just white. On reading the list of judges, Koenig exclaims, “Holy cow, that’s a lot of Irish names.”)

Accordingly, Bensing feels hopeful about Anna’s case because his client is Caucasian. “As a general rule,” he says, “it never helps to be black, it never hurts to be white.”

But the episode doesn’t quite click. As an illustrative case, Anna’s story certainly hints how the courts system of pleas and deals takes on a life of its own, no matter how unjust a case may be. But the fact that Koenig has to editorialise on why Anna’s charge is unfair is telling, as opposed to showing. And while the host’s style can be disarmingly casual and wryly witty, it’s often in danger of veering into smugly mannered territory.

That said, the second episode is much more absorbing, as it covers the courtroom of the floridly un-PC Judge Daniel Gaul. By tracing cases over several months while interviewing both Gaul and those before him, Koenig and co-reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi vividly illustrate the power of individual judges, as well as their prejudices: Gaul prefers probationary sentences as it allows him more control over those he convicts.

The depth of research is impressive yet easily worn, doing enough to hold the interest for the next episode.

As does Koenig’s spiel at the episode’s close. People don’t care about the legal system, she muses, unless a “crime and punishment shockwave” billows across the country. “That’s next time,” she says.

Whether Serial can recreate the buzz of old remains the real cliff-hanger, however. So far, the jury is out.