It’s often said that the second season of a series is where it really proves its worth. The writers, producers, and directors spend hours, months, and maybe even years perfecting the first season of their shows—think True Detective, Dexter, and plenty of others. But the second season is where those same people can prove their resilience and ability to continue making great shows.
It’s hard to see a place where this is more true than with Serial, Sarah Koenig’s podcast from This American Life. The story for the first season was dropped on Sarah Koenig’s doorstep after a reader of her articles for the Baltimore Sun invited her to look closely into the trial and conviction of Adnan Syed, a teenager sentenced to life in prison. Koenig had a personal connection to the story as her past as a journalist involved in-depth profiling of the main defense lawyer in the case, and she had time to consider how and what she was going to say about the case. The season was like Koenig’s child: she nurtured it and worked on every lead she could find, so personally invested that she herself became a part of the story.
The second season is anything but personal to Koenig. It’s an investigation into the many problems and intricacies of the Department of Defense’s attempt, and eventual success, in returning a prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, home from Pakistan. The two seasons might as well be entirely different shows, save for the title, but even though it might not attract the same audience, the second season holds its own as fascinating investigative journalism.
Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl was captured by Taliban forces in Afghanistan after he walked off of a U.S. Army base in the middle of the night in June 2009. The resulting effort to save him cost the DOD millions of dollars in military equipment and personnel, and thousands of hours of negotiations. Koenig pores over every detail of what went wrong—and, sometimes, right—in the DOD’s methods of retrieving Bergdahl.
Koenig tells the story as she learns it, and this season, episodes are being released biweekly, allowing her to add more information as it’s released to the public. Koenig talks conversationally to both the audience and with each person she interviews. She’ll often pause in the middle of a conversation to make a side note, commenting on a particular aspect of whatever she happens to be talking about. The style makes the podcast feel more human, making it a conversation with, rather than a lecture to the audience.
Though the style of the podcast is personal, the subject matter is far from it. The story of Bergdahl, unlike that of Syed, is distant—literally and figuratively. Most people don’t know much about the specific politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the Haqqanis and OP Mest—people simply aren’t invested in these subjects. Unlike the first season where Koenig pored over a tiny event, in the second, she takes a step back and looks at events that big-name politicians from President Obama to Donald Trump have been talking about for years.
That information is surprisingly manageable, though. Like the first season, Koenig attacks a different aspect of the story in each episode. She opens with a general explanation of the story, then delves deeper into it, looking into Bergdahl’s escape attempts, where he was moved and why, and the progress of American diplomatic efforts so far. Even though the subject is removed, it makes sense. However, the subject matter could alienate listeners of the first season—people who were interested in the murder case might not be as interested in U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.
But the season does stand well on its own and Koenig’s storytelling makes the show riveting. One of the highlights this season was when, in a preview for the second episode, Koenig announced some interesting news.
“The Taliban’s version of Bowe’s capture? Next time, on Serial.” And a week later, she was on the phone with members of the Taliban asking them their perspective on Bergdahl’s capture. What? How did she even do that? Koenig pulls the strings and drops information slowly to keep her listeners hooked. I guess that’s why it’s called Serial. I’ll want to come back next time.