A Nation of Voyeurs: On Serial and Its Super-Fans

mgid-uma-image-mtvIT SEEMS LIKE you can’t go more than five minutes on the Internet without seeing an article, timeline, cell-phone tower map, or conspiracy theory about Serial. For those of you who’ve somehow managed to avoid the cultural phenomenon that is Serial, here’s some very, very basic information.

Serial is a podcast that is a spin-off of another popular podcast, This American Life. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, each weekly installment tell tells the real-life narrative of Hae Min Lee, a high school student allegedly murdered in 1999 by her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder and is currently serving a life sentence (though he still maintains his innocence). Interviews with a number of people associated with the case are often featured on the podcast, including phone calls from a jailed Syed himself, who’s fully been cooperating with Koenig. Googling the words “Serial” and “theories” together will clue you in on all the speculation circulating the web on the many details surrounding this case, but if you do decide to go down this dark path, just know you might lift your head from your phone only to discover that three hours have gone by since you scrolled through that tab (trust). You’ve been warned.

So why is Serial so popular? Why has this particular phenomenon invaded our popular culture? It’s not an exaggeration to say that people (myself included) are obsessed, and I mean OBSESSED, when it comes to this podcast. Case in point: all of those articles and maps and theories mentioned earlier — I’ve read them. I mean, I listen to a podcast that breaks down each episode of Serial. Yes, that’s right. I listen to a podcast about a podcast, and I’m definitely not alone.

According to The New York Times, Serial is the most popular podcast to date, and has been downloaded on iTunes more than 5 million times, averaging about 1.5 million listeners per episode. Just to give you an idea about how many people that really is, here are a few comparisons:

The 2014 Super Bowl had about 22 times more people watch.

The 2014 State of the Union address only had about 6 times as many viewers.

The Breaking Bad finale had twice as many viewers.

If some would have said, two months ago, that an intelligent, well-produced podcast that doesn’t mention a celebrity name even once would be the next “thing” to have America in its grip, I would’ve laughed it off and said that it was nice you had that high of an opinion about our fellow Americans, because I surely didn’t. But the question still remains: Why is everyone tuning in?

Because we live in a society of voyeurs. The abundance of reality TV shows on the airwaves proves that. We can’t wait to witness the demises of marriages and relationships that inevitably get paraded on screen, tuning in with glee to see Tori Spelling and Kendra Wilkinson confront their cheating spouses and attempt to repair their relationships. We wait with bated breath for the convictions of Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice and her husband, on trial for fraud, to return, and we watch people struggling with health and weight loss on The Biggest Loser as if we are personally invested in their success or failure.

Do we enjoy something like Serial so much because it’s a hybrid of a courtroom drama (you love Law and Order, quit lying to yourself) and a reality program? Are we audial rubberneckers, unable to tear our ears away from the macabre and titillating details unfolding every episode? Are we vicarious adrenaline junkies who love a cliffhanger on a whodunit? The story is still unfolding to this day, with an appeals hearing for Syed scheduled in January, so perhaps it’s that we like being unified with other Serial listeners, all of us equally eager for the next episode to download that will let us know what happens at the hearing, all of us finding out at the exact same time. Is it possible that this murder case has given us a sense of community?

While I won’t give my opinion, there are plenty of people on what’s now referred to on social media as #TeamAdnan, people who believe his conviction was a grave failure on the part of the criminal justice system. So are Serial-bingers really just enraged patriots who want to uphold the integrity of the courts? But if we want to be enraged about something (although the failings of the criminal justice system is important), we have the events of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner’s case, among many other social injustices going on in our country at this very moment, to rally around. Why are so many of us obsessed with a 15-year-old murder case in Baltimore, MD? I would hazard to wager that there are more people that know the ins and outs of Syed’s case than have taken the time to study the details of either of the above incidents.

Do we think we may be able to crack the case and finally find out definitively if it was Adnan or someone else? Has Adnan become our everyman antihero? Perhaps it’s just the X factor. That thing that you can’t put your finger on that somehow hits the pulse of society like that song everyone’s obsessed with or the supernatural trilogy or even that book which I refuse to name about S&M. Maybe like the case, we will never know why we are all taken with Serial. But I do know I’m already counting down till next week’s episode.

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