Serial Postmortem: Criticism, Parody, and the Challenge of Being Likeable

Obviously, over the holidays I finished Serial, the explosively famous true-crime podcast from the producers of This American Life, aka white folk's most favoritest thing since going to Whole Foods in yoga clothes. Serial became unexpectedly popular -- it was always intended, I assume, to be a niche spinoff for true podcast fans -- and took on a very real life of its own.  People who've never heard of This American Life started tuning in, which is nuts-crazy and almost certainly due to my extraordinary blog post on the subject which was read by a record double digits number of people. You're welcome, Serial. Let me know when Sarah Koening needs a break and I'll fill right in.

With the show's popularity has come additional information: you may have seen that the elusive Jay, whom all listeners have undoubtedly accused of murder at some point, gave a three part interview that -- believe or disbelieve him -- casts Koenig in a different light. And just yesterday, real-life prosecutor Kevin Urick gave a public interview about what he called "a run-of-the-mill domestic violence murder," totally unpersuaded by the questions Koenig raised. Outside of the careful framing of the show, these interviews remind us that this crime really happened and these people are real people with real lives who may not be as entertained by the radio drama as we bystanders are.

Of course, with fame comes also infamy: the inevitable boomerang of criticism and satire. First there's backlash, like Jay Kang's "'Serial' and White Reporter Privilege." And then there's then there's backlash against the backlash, like Conor Friedersdorf's thoughtful defense of Serial in The Atlantic. And then there's criticism's happy, loving neighbor: satire.

While gentle parody is not new to the TAL gang -- there's a whole podcast called THAT American Life -- the scale of Serial parody has been unique.  Saturday Night Live's Christmas episode did a moderately funny piece on it (Sarah Koening investigating Kris Kringle, who allegedly leaves presents in people's homes on Christmas). It was pre-taped, which means it was more permanent and much more expensive to produce than a regular walk-on live sketch. And it was completely inside-jokey, unashamedly intended as entertainment only for regular listeners of the podcast. (By comparison, Fred Armisen impersonating Ira Glass was cut from SNL last year because the producers thought too few viewers would get the joke.) So, it's safe to say that Serial's cultural relevance -- or at least its perceived cultural relevance -- has eclipsed its parent podcast.

There's also this parody, where comedians Will Stephen, Zach Cherry, and Paul Laudiero mock Koenig's elaborate question-parsing ("Adnan made phone calls. He also received them. Why? What makes a person receive a phone call?"  and "Where was the pay phone? What’s a Best Buy?
What makes its buy the best?”) Then there's this cringeworthy parody that resets Serial as a rom-com between Koening and Adnan using real Serial audio (it was only a matter of time before someone explored this poor-taste angle, right?). This parody predicted the last episode's ending; this parody speculates that Season 2 will just be an analysis of Sarah Koenig's performance in Season 1 ("Everyone said Adnan was likeable...but am I likeable?")

Courtesy of This American Chart, follow her on Twitter.
And though that last one was just a parody, that's kind of the note that the show left with me, too. As the last episode ended, I was left with one primary thought: resoundingly, whether they thought he was guilty or not guilty, every single person who was asked about Adnan said that he was "charming," and "likeable," that he was the kind of person no one would think capable of murder, abd that given what his friends and family and community leaders knew about him, it was unfathomable that he could have committed this crime.

And the support and love and respect and admiration for Adnan was so great that I started to realized that if I were ever in Adnan's horrible, unfortunate situation, literally everyone would be like, "oh yeah, I can totally see Alison being a murderer." "Alison? Oh yeah, she probably did it."  "Have you guys even looked into Alison? She didn't know the guy or anything but she just has that 'murderess' quality about her."  And then I started to freak out, because these people said such consistently, overwhelmingly flattering things about Adnan, and he still got convicted! A life sentence! Where does that leave someone like me, who drinks too much and talks way too much and curses a lot and is a member of America's most hated profession and isn't a great driver and can't cook and has random enemies I didn't even know about?

So I came here to say, you guys, seriously, if I ever get accused of murder you have to stick up for me! Like, I promise that I almost certainly didn't do it. Like 95 percent. Like at least 90 percent.  Like 85-90 percent of the time I didn't do the murder and you guys have to believe me and say it doesn't sound like me at all. Unless I killed somebody wearing a plastic coat listening to Huey Lewis and the News, then whoops, yeah, that totally sounds like me.

What if Jay killed Paul Allen?
But I started thinking that it was the same with Hae also, right? Everyone loved Hae. She was a teenage girl and everyone thought she was smart, mature, confident, good-natured, funny, likeable. Y'all, literally no teenage girl in the history of the world has ever been likable. Teenage girls are the worst human beings on the planet. It should be like "oh, that's sad. Did her parents murder her because she was completely insufferable for the last four years? I get that." If someone had murdered me when I was 18 years old, like legitimately 10 people would have cheered. I'm not trying to be glib about this (too late), but I do find it compelling that both of the parties in this horrible, real-life crime -- the victim and the convicted killer -- are unusually charismatic, well-respected people who are universally beloved across high school cliques. That's unusual, right? Just think if Judd Nelson had murdered Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club: no one would be surprised that he was a killer and half the people would think that bitch had it coming.*

Maybe that's the basis that made this show so captivating. No one in the podcast was evil; everyone was sympathetic. A crime with only victims? Gripping. So now, Serial Season 2 is in the works, and it will be interesting to see if the show can duplicate the unique elements of personality and circumstance that made Season 1 so addictive, because it has to be rare, right? And in the meantime, I'm serious, y'all, if I ever get arrested be nice to me. And please don't show the police this blog.

*Like Molly Ringwald, I also occasionally brought sushi for lunch in high school. Hence the 10 people cheering for my death thing.
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