I’m Super, Duper Serial
This is a tough analysis, because I was immediately hooked on Serial, and I was a fan of This American Life and quality podcasts in general before we started here. So right away I’m biased, but I’ll try to make my assessments objective, in so far as I’m able. I think the New Yorker is spot on with their assessment of Serial. The experience Sarah Larson describes is exactly the experience I feel I’ve had in listening. “It sounds like your smart friend is investigating a murder and telling you about it.” Its just like that. I feel the narrator is trustworthy, and that I’m receiving verified and reliable information, but I’m gripped by the suspense of the narrative, by the storytelling ability of my new great friend Sarah Koenig.
Concerning the technical moves though, everything seems like it just coalesces to make Serial this magnificent thing. The first thing I notice about it, the most obvious thing, is Sarah’s voice. Duh, because Sarah’s voice is like technically speaking about 95% of what makes up the actual product of Serial, right? But there’s more to it than that. You don’t notice the voice just because its the only thing you hear. We’re accustomed to hearing voices. We hear them all the time. So there has to be something about the voice. The thing about Sarah’s voice, and its not some mystical quality but rather a carefully cultivated tool, is that its simultaneously comforting and arresting. It makes the listener comfortable but also demands the listener’s attention. Sarah speaks calmly, quietly, and like Ira Glass suggests, she speaks like a human. all of these things contribute to her appeal, but I think the volume of her voice is important. She’s not yelling at us, trying to get us to believe her or pick up some line she thinks we should be on. She’s quiet, quiet even for an inside voice. She’s sitting close to you in a closed room, away from noises of traffic or children or birds or the damn neighbors who just blast the TV volume so loud you can feel the dialogue in your walls but otherwise they’re very nice and they’re just too old for you to go over and make a thing out of it but still its so aggravating. She’s confessing to you. It is because of her quiet that we have to listen, and carefully. Because if we don’t we might miss something.
The various sound effects used do well to help fill in the background of a given seen. The sound of chatter and lockers when they’re in school, the sounds of traffic as they drive around. These might be captured by their mics as they do their investigation, or they could be layered in later for effect. Either way, they help. More so because so much of what we here is Sarah in the studio, in the quiet of this magic parlor where she tells us secrets. Every new sound is a signal, it means there’s something new to pay attention to. It gives us context, and in an instant lets whatever behind-the-scenes mechanism we have in our brains build an elaborate backdrop for the scene. And I think we would be foolish to believe that the crew at Serial isn’t playing us all like fiddles every time that happens.
The pacing of the show, and the overall tone, are also really impactful elements of what makes this show effective. Its arranged so perfectly that it never gets tired or dry, but it always give you enough that you never have to stop and say wait I didn’t get that. Its not confusing or misleading but it is incredibly suspenseful. Sometimes its kind of like if a slightly nicer version of Daria were reading the plot of a noir crime story. The tone is casual and candid, and yet somehow very serious. It allows the audience to feel part of a storytelling audience, but never underplays the fact that what we’re talking about here is the murder of an ostensibly innocent young woman, and the possible unjust incarceration of a man for almost his entire adult life. And the tone of course is largely informed by Sarah’s magic voice. Really these are just a few items in what is no doubt a deep toolbox of radio magic that allows Serial to be as good as it is. They are the ones that are most apparent to me as a first time listener, but I am certain I would find more and more were I to listen to the series again and again.