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Spoiler Alert: Lots and lots of spoilers! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast, and don’t want major details of the story ruined for you, please avoid reading this post. You’ve been warned. Seriously though this will totally ruin it for you so don’t read it.

Over the weekend my wife and I devoured all seven simultaneously-released episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life which launched on March 28.

The following hastily-written-and-probably-too-long blog post encapsulates my initial reaction after listening to all seven episodes straight through over three days. It’s not an episode recap; I haven’t spoken to anyone else about S-Town except for my wife; and I haven’t looked up anything about what critics or fans have said about it so far. As a result, I may get some of the details wrong, but these are some of the questions I thought about over and over again after finishing S-Town.

Why did Serial and This American Life launch the series the way they did?
I had no idea S-Town was even coming out. I may have read some rumblings about a season 3 of Serial at some point, but when my wife told me she just found out the third season had just been released, I didn’t believe her. It turns out she was right–sort of.

S-Town was apparently produced by Serial and This American Life, but was not being billed as Serial s3. Instead, S-Town is its own free-standing, seven-episode podcast. Here’s the description of S-Town from its official website:

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, many of them produced by NPR, so it was hard to believe a new podcast like S-Town, with public radio pedigree, would have flown under my radar.

Was this intentional?
Part of what made Serial’s first season so successful–besides that awesome Mail Chimp sponsorship–was that it came out of nowhere. Most listeners didn’t know anything about the story of Adnan Syed, they likely hadn’t heard of Sarah Koenig, and some probably hadn’t ever listened to a podcast before. Then Serial punched us in the face with some of the best storytelling you’ll find in any medium, and we were blown away.

On the heels of a great season 1, season 2 had high expectations. Some fans, including myself, even donated money to NPR/Serial to help Koenig make season 2. Without getting into detail about why season 2 was disappointing, suffice it to say it was a letdown for most fans expecting as compelling and labyrinthine a story as we got in season 1.

For those reasons, perhaps, Serial and TAL decided to keep a low profile, and release S-Town as own entity, with little fanfare and only a loose connection to Serial–allowing fans like me to go in with tempered expectations. To borrow a five-dollar word from S-Town’s subject, John Brooks McLemore, I’m guessing producers saw what happened with s2 and took a proleptic* approach to S-Town’s release to guard against such high expectations and let S-Town be judged on its own merit.

*Prolepsis: a rhetorical tool in which one anticipates possible objections in order to answer them in advance. John B uses this word in the first episode; Brian admits he had to look it up.

And why all seven episodes at once?
I go back to the failure of s2 of Serial again on this one. The reporting of the story as they learned it was what made Serial s1 so great, but s2 felt like it was poorly planned, with the cadence of new episodes changing from one week to two, as they were simultaneously updating us (and then not updating us) on the story from s1. I believe they released all seven episodes of S-Town to “prove” that the story had been fully reported on and was now a completed season we could consume all at once or spaced out however we want. This isn’t a new tactic; Netflix does this all the time with its original content. I wouldn’t be surprised if they realized Serial s3 the same way.

What was the actual timeline for the events that take place in S-Town?
From what I recall, John B first contacted Brian in 2014, they had a phone call a few months later, and eventually Brian went to visit John B in Alabama. I believe the first visit was at some point in 2015.

S1 of Serial ran from October to December 2014. Did John B contact NPR, or Serial, during that season or after? Did the reporters and/or producers involved think they might use John B’s alleged claim about an unreported murder as a season of Serial? If not, it seems strange that Brian would even bother to investigate John B’s story–though when I heard John B and Brian’s first phone call, I assumed he was providing accurate information.

And how deep into the story did Brian decide that John B’s story was podcast-worthy? And how did he decide to continue reporting after John B’s claims had been proven false? Why did he decide to continue reporting after John B died? Did he wait until he had everything he needed before deciding how to organize the information and tell the story across seven “chapters”?

I guess the question I’m really asking is…

Did Brian just get really lucky that John B–in life and in death–was as interesting as he was? Or does Brian–and the people who sign his checks–deserve credit for sticking with the story?
Like any other successful endeavor in life, it seems like this was a combination of luck and skill. Brian’s reporting of this story is tremendous, but the story of John B. McLemore was delivered on a silver platter. But give him credit for seeing that silver platter under a ratty Benjamin Moore t-shirt.

Did John B really call Faye as he was committing suicide? 
Maybe Serial s1 trained me to question everything, but without a call log or audio of John B calling Faye, I’m not 100% convinced he did. Faye doesn’t really give us a reason to doubt her, except that she didn’t get in touch with the first seven people on John B’s contact list–which he hand-delivered to her for this very reason–to let them know John B had died. Was this forgetfulness or laziness on her part? Was John’s lawyer, Boozer Downs, involved somehow in some sort of cover-up?

Or is the more logical explanation simply that Faye unintentionally let the task of calling John B’s contacts fall through the cracks? Given how much John B entrusted Faye to carry out his posthumous requests, I just can’t get past this error, but the idea that it was part of a greater conspiracy to steal from him seems far-fetched.

Did Tyler steal the gold? Was there any gold? What did he tell Brian off the record in the final episode?
I kept going back and forth about whether there was any buried treasure, but if anyone knew about it besides Faye (who said it John B had gold bars wrapped in a towel in the freezer) I figured it would be Tyler. Did he take it when he went to the house to gather John B’s valuables so the Florida cousins couldn’t get to them?

When Brian asks Tyler if he ever found the buried treasure, and Tyler asks him to turn off the recorder before answering, it’s implied that he found something. I’d almost rather not know this conversation took place if I can’t know what was said!

Was Tyler a con-man? Was he feigning affection for John B, knowing he could take advantage of the situation? Did Tyler egg John B on to kill himself while he was drunk, as Rita (the Florida cousin) suggested?
I don’t think Tyler was there when John B killed himself, and I think he may even be telling the truth when he said he refused to go over to John B’s the night he killed himself, even after John B told Tyler he was going to commit suicide.

I do wonder if Tyler was fed up with John B after we learned about John B’s “church” ritual of asking Tyler to mutilate his body with tattoos, piercings, and later whippings. If I’m Tyler, I might have taken a little something for my trouble after John B had passed away, knowing I’d more than enough to earn it.

So are we just assuming John B’s depression was brought on by mercury poisoning from his unsafe practice of fire-gilding over 30+ years?
It certainly seems that way, but I can’t help but wonder if Brian asked five other doctors, he might find a few who would say John B was just depressed, and they couldn’t conclude with certainty that it was related to the mercury. Of course it doesn’t really matter except to add yet another layer of complexity to an already complex character.

How should we take the information delivered in Brian’s coda?
After we hear an excerpt from John B’s suicide note, we assume the series is over. But then Brian layers one remaining piece of information that may or may not color our view of John B, Shit Town, and really the whole story we just heard.

When Brian tells us that John B’s great-grandfather built his fortune on the backs of the neighbors he stole from, he’s implying, in my view, that John B’s expansive patch of land, his home, his garden maze, and every material possession he has–including, perhaps, some hidden gold–was ill-gotten.

Does Brian want us to think John B is a hypocrite, that for all his rants about his town’s state of dysfunction, it was people like his own great-grandfather that made it this way? Or does this answer the question of why John B, for as much as he hates Shit Town, has never left? Or why he’s driven to right all the perceived wrongs of his fellow man, including those in his town, as a way of canceling out the evil deeds of his family?

I agree with the decision to save this information for later in the story, so that it doesn’t bias us against John B and we’re free to form our own opinion of him regardless of what his family did three generations before. But I might have liked some more detail around his family history. I wonder if Brian found this information too late to add it somewhere else in the story, so he stuck it at the end.

What was S-Town? And was it good
Genres are tricky sometimes. People starting calling Serial a “true crime” podcast, and it was, but the real-time nature of it, the way the story evolve as Sarah Koenig told it, made it something special.

Was S-Town simply a biography of an unusual man started when he was alive and finished after he died? Was it an obituary? Or was it simply an experiment in storytelling, in audio journalism?

I kind of don’t care what it was. And I don’t care that we don’t really have a resolution about John’s hidden treasure, or Tyler, or Faye, or the cousins, or even John’s mother, Mary Grace, who was supposedly flourishing once she was out of John B’s care.

Having been trained by Serial to follow a story so closely for months, only to be deprived of the closure I knew all along I wouldn’t get, I didn’t expect closure with S-Town, either. But I went along for the ride anyway, and I was glad I did.

What did you think?

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Remember Jeremy Lin?

In April 2012 I wrote a blog post about the excitement surrounding the emergence of Lin, the Asian-American Harvard graduate turned starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

By then the “Linsanity” that had overtaken New York City and the basketball world for a few months over the winter had all but died down. Lin would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and later eventually sign with another team, where he performed well below Linsanity levels.

I got to thinking about Jeremy Lin as I was thinking about the upcoming final episode of Serial, the country’s most popular podcast about a 1999 murder. Serial’s final episode will be available for download on Thursday morning.

The series has elevated the audio format, and has generated interest of all kinds. Besides the Reddit community and others like it, who have no shortage of theories, we have others debating whether Serial is ethical. Whether it’s technically journalism. Whether it should exist at all. (Also, whether it’s okay for a brand to joke about it on Twitter.)

From what I’ve been reading online, most listeners believe there will be no real closure to the story. Serial’s host Sarah Koenig will likely end the show’s first season having accomplished nothing—i.e., nothing but entertain her audience for the last three months.

(Speaking of the end of Serial, here’s my own crackpot theory: Jay had a far bigger role in the murder than he admitted to police, and quite possibly framed Adnan knowing Adnan was an easy target. I say easy target because Adnan was Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim Maryland area—which was clearly a factor for some of the jurorsand Adnan was the victim’s ex-boyfriend. Also, Jay could count on the state’s star witness—himself—to push the investigation away from himself and towards Adnan, meanwhile getting himself a plea deal (and free lawyer) for cooperating with the state. Not crackpot-y enough for ya? I also feel like the popularity of the Scream movies back in the late 1990s somehow played into the idea of this real life 1999 high school murder where someone else may have been framed for the crime.)

Like Jeremy Lin, Serial will go on to play another season. (Thanks to listener donations the show can fund another Serial story—that is, if Sarah Koenig can ever recover from the first one.)

Jeremy Lin hasn’t come close to approximating the excitement he created in New York in 2012; he’s been extremely average as a basketball player. For Serial’s part, I think a second season with an equally specious story—maybe another intriguing cold case, maybe something else entirely—could be great. Will it be great as the first season? Maybe—but probably not.

Perhaps Serial’s legacy, more than its Linsanity-like excitement in the fall of 2014, will be that it opens the door for other would-be podcasters to create long-form, high quality, episodic, intellectual content that people will actual listen to, without producers having to worry about trying to sell audiences on a new (if not recycled) concept. “It’s gonna be the next Serial,” would be their oft-repeated—if slightly exaggerated—mantra.

As for the last episode of Serial’s first season, I haven’t been as pumped for a finale since Breaking Bad’s last episode in 2013. Serial won’t be wrapped up as neatly as I’d like it to be, i.e. Adnan is clearly guilty or clearly innocent based on new evidence Koenig has been holding back from us.

But that’s not really the point anymore.

Got a Serial theory? Let’s hear it.

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A few weeks back I blogged about my latest audio obsession, the new Taylor Swift album the Serial podcast.

At that time I made a couple of predictions about the podcast, which have since come true.

My first prediction was “plot” driven—with plot in quotes because this is actually a real-life murder, not a prime time procedural. (It’s also WAY more provocative than the average prime time procedural.) I said that the story Serial’s Sarah Koenig is telling would evolve as people familiar with and/or involved in the case hear the podcast and reach out to her with their input. Sure enough, in episode #9, this happened.

A former classmate of the then-teenagers involved in the case contacted Koenig to refute, with confidence, the prosecutor’s timeline for the murder. This “witness” coming forward was a direct result of her hearing the podcast and wanted to contribute some information she believed Koenig (and the police) didn’t already have.

For the man who sits in jail convicted of murder, Adnan Sayed, it’s not clear whether these out of court testimonies 15 years later will ultimately help or hurt his case, but I suppose they can’t make things much worse for him.

(I also recently came across an article about the complicated ethics of Serial that’s definitely worth a read for fans–even if, like me, you disagree with it.)

The second prediction I made was about the business side of Serial. Serial is a free podcast whose first season has been funded by This American Life, a syndicated public radio show that relies on donations and scant advertising partners (Mail Kimp, anyone?) to keep itself on the air. (Serial is a spin-off of This American Life and debuted its pilot episode on TAL.)

I predicted/suggested that Serial would/should charge something—anything!—for downloads of its episodes. What better time to do it than now, when Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes? People are clearly into the show, and the mainstream media (plus my blog!) is taking notice.

But rather than charging for episode downloads–now that they have us completely at the mercy of Sarah Koenig’s storytelling (including those bits and pieces she undoubtedly knows but has yet to share)–Serial is doing what public radio usually does: they have asked, rather than required, listeners to contribute money to fund a second season of the show. The suggested donation is $10, which can be done by simply texting SERIAL to 25383.

With the constant debates about how much is too much to pay for content—the cable bundle debate in particular—I think $10 to help fund a show of Serial’s quality is a steal. So far I’ve listened to about five hours of Serial content (all nine episodes of the show) and Koenig has yet to set a final end date or number of episodes for season 1.

Last year I opted not to give money to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign to fund his movie I Wish I Was Here, which was eventually funded without me and made into a pretty good movie. The basis for my decision was that it isn’t my job as the potential consumer to fund the making of creative endeavor such as a film; instead it’s my job to decide, based on trailers, reviews, as well as the creator’s previous body of work (in this case one of my favorite films, Garden State, whether to pay to see the film once it’s made. And that’s what I did.

Serial has given us nine free episodes. Fans have heard enough to know just how good it is. Now it’s on us, by donating a few bucks, to see how good it can be in season two.

Are you a fan of the show? Do you plan to help fund a second season of Serial? Why or why not?

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Of all the entertainment media competing for my attention–hundreds of cable channels, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–its a modest little public radio podcast that’s got me completely consumed.

You may have heard of Serial (more likely you haven’t), a  podcast off-shoot of the more well known National Public Radio (a.k.a. NPR) show and podcast, This American Life (TAL), hosted by Ira Glass.

I’m a regular TAL listener, so when I downloaded episode #537, “The Alibi,” I was expecting the usual radio magazine-style fare TAL produces each week–that is, four or five stories tied to that episode’s theme. But this time TAL was trying something a little different.

The episode was actually Serial‘s first episode. Rather than producing a new episode around a new theme each week, reporter and Serial host Sarah Koenig tells a new chapter of the same story, one about a high school kid named Adnan Syed who in 1999 was convicted of strangling his classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Koenig was made aware of Adnan’s story by a friend of Adnan’s family last year. Once she started digging, she couldn’t stop. So as Adnan Sayed sits in jail for a crime he (maybe) didn’t commit, Koenig has been working to uncover any fishy details about the case that might prove his innocence–or guilt.

With what I’ve told you so far, the show admittedly sounds like something from a network TV legal drama. But if you listen to the show–and I’m urging everyone who reads this to listen to the show–Koenig’s tireless investigation and simple-yet-compelling storytelling style will hook you in, and you’ll be like me–waiting around for Thursday mornings, when the latest episodes of Serial are available for download.

As we listen to Koenig’s investigation unfold each week, we’re still not quite sure what to think about Adnan. Koenig is going about her reporting professionally and impartially as far as we can tell, but I would guess she wants Adnan to be innocent of Hae’s murder. (I would guess a lot of Serial listeners feel the same way.) And some–but not all–the evidence she gathers suggests that maybe, just maybe, the police and the court system got it wrong and Koenig is a few weeks of research (and podcasts) away from cracking the case wide open and springing Adnan from his prison cell, where he’s been for 15 years.

I’ve spoken to a handful of people about the show–I’ve also avoided most of the media around it, for fear of spoilers–and the sense I’m getting is that Sarah must know more than she’s letting on. She must have everything neatly laid out on a storyboard and is rolling information out in bits and pieces to keep us tuning in each week. And why wouldn’t she? How could she go into this thing telling this true story of a (possibly) wrongly convicted man without knowing what the ending is?

Well perhaps this is the biggest twist in the series so far: she doesn’t know what the ending is.

In an interview with Vulture published on Thursday, the same day Serial‘s sixth episode became available, Sarah admitted that she doesn’t know where the story is going. Here’s what she said in the Vulture interview:

I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!

That’s nuts! It also might be genius.

I’ve railed on many a fictional TV show for not knowing where the story ends and making dozens more episodes than the story actually needs simply because it’s profitable. But in the case of Serial, a non-fiction series, not having an ending (yet) might be the smartest thing they could do. For one, they’ve eliminated the chance of spoilers online because A) Koenig likely knows more about this case than anyone in the world and even she doesn’t know everything; and B) it brings tremendous credibility to the series in that Koenig is reporting a lot of these as she learns them herself rather than having a chance to over-produce and edit the crap out of it, like you see on so many “reality” TV shows these days.

What’s also fascinating about the show is what it’s doing for the medium of radio–or more generally any audio platform. Serial storytelling is a throwback to the olden days before TV. I find myself amazed at how engaged I am while listening to Serial, which is nothing but talking and some sparse background music. I’m not quite ready to cancel my cable, but it’s nice to be reminded that if the story itself is good enough, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is. (By the way, Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes in the U.S. right now.)

(I shouldn’t be giving the Serial people any ideas, but they probably should be thinking about monetizing right now, if not for this season/story than the next. TAL relies heavily on donations, along with a handful of advertisers. If ever there was a time to start charging per episode, or per series, it’s now. Hell, I’d pay it.)

Of course Serial‘s uncertain status (re: its ending) is a tremendous risk. If Koenig makes 12, 15, or even 30 episodes of the series as the story continues to become more and more complex–I can also easily see more potential witnesses coming out of the woodwork when they hear the show–and at the end of it all there’s nothing but speculation about Adnan’s guilt, what was the point?

In my estimation there are going to be two schools of thought if the Adnan Syed story ends without a resolution:

  • The people who will have enjoyed the ride so much that the unlearned truth won’t matter as much as the journey to get there.
  • The people who will be furious because they “wasted” so many hours waiting for some absolute closure that never comes.

Like many listeners out there, I want to see Koenig’s indefatigable efforts lead to Adnan’s conviction being overturned–while also finding Hae’s true killer. (Or, if Sarah finds enough evidence against Adnan that it’s impossible not to believe he did it, I’d be okay with that, too.)

But I don’t know if we’ll get that. And I don’t know what a lack of an irrefutable ending will mean for the next season of Serial. Will we demand that Sarah gets all the way to the finish line before we start listening to how she got there? Or will we double-down on Serial, knowing that Koenig is as much along for the ride as we are?

I highly recommend you check out Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/ (Don’t know how to listen to podcasts? Watch this video in which Ira Glass teaches his elderly friend how to do it: http://serialpodcast.org/how-to-listen)

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