Serial Season Two makes fascinating listening

BY ELI FRANK —

We all know Serial as the highly addictive podcast that made podcasts popular again. A This American Life Production, Serial’s Season One had journalist Sarah Koenig reinvestigating a virtually unknown 1999 Baltimore murder of a high school student over the course of one hour each week for 12 weeks.

Listeners learned each gripping new development right alongside Koenig, which made for thrilling listening. Season One received rave reviews and captured the minds of tens of millions of listeners.

The hotly anticipated Season Two recently concluded, but went largely unnoticed, with little news coverage. In this newest season, Koenig takes a look at the story of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan and was subsequently captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

As part of a prisoner exchange, Bergdahl was released by the Taliban back to the U.S. in 2014. For many weeks, Bergdahl was a frequent headline and the subject of many conversations, with his story drawing much speculation, but little actual investigation. Bergdahl disappeared from the news until late 2015 when it was announced he would be tried by the U.S. Army for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Koenig, in Serial Season Two, offers what the mainstream news media never did: a serious investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance. It’s easy to see why Season Two went, for the most part, ignored. I don’t know many people dying to hear about the Afghanistan War, which many Americans would prefer to banish to some distant corner of our nation’s history, despite the fact that we’re still deeply involved in that conflict.

We’d much rather listen to a murder story we share no blame in. One that any of us can relate to, with juicy gossip and high school drama. A soldier’s disappearance in a war we’d much rather forget does not offer anything remotely close to that. The fact remains, however, that Serial’s Season Two is a monumental work of investigative journalism and a highly successful form of storytelling.

Koenig once again brings her unyielding passion and dedication to find out the whole truth to a story that desperately needed unbiased telling. The newest season offers that, and Koenig finds a way, due in large part to her amicability, geniality and general reliability, to make us want to keep listening.

I’ll admit, the podcast fell a little flat in the middle. I had trouble figuring out what Koenig’s endgame was, and I longed for the addictive, fast-moving plot of Season One. Koenig kept me, and I suspect others, listening, though, because we knew she had something to say and a story to tell. Her witty sense of humor certainly helped, as well. (One of the funniest moments of the season came out of nowhere in an unexpected phone call to, of all places, Taliban headquarters: “Hi! This is Sarah. Is this the Taliban?”)

Koenig kept me listening, and I am deeply appreciative of that. By the end of Episode 11, the podcast had regained its focus and I was left with a better understanding of the backstory of the War in Afghanistan and many of the inner workings of the Obama administration at the time.

Season Two is vastly different from Season One: There’s no more wickedly ambiguous but addictive murder story. Instead, listeners are given a sobering and impersonal look at the actions of one soldier who, agree or disagree with what he did, had a major impact on the conversation of this country.

Koenig reminds us of the fact that, as much as we would prefer to forget, we still have thousands of troops stationed in Afghanistan. Koenig has once again diverted our attention back to a forgotten story that warrants telling — and our listening.

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