Ep. 5 — Is Murder the More Fun Crime?
The popular consensus on Season 2 of Serial so far seems to be, “Yeah, okay, but it’s no Season 1.” This is sometimes followed by an attempt to discuss it on its own merits, which is then followed by, “Still… Season 1, man…”
The overflowing energy that surrounded the Adnan Syed case now seems to be happening for Making a Murderer. Both Serial season 1 and the Netflix documentary share a central whodunnit case, which is still being solved by the public. Both generated fury around the issue of wrongful conviction. Both also have a main cast of distinctive characters.
So far, I’ve been a Bowe Bergdahl apologist. I’ve credited Season 2 for not giving us another unresolvable mystery over one man’s moral goodness. But even I — the only person on record admitting to having a crush on Bowe’s dull monotone — can no longer avoid admitting that Season 2 hasn’t really seized my fascination as much as Season 1.
I don’t think the issue with season 2 is only that it’s missing a central whodunnit plot. I like that this season is different. Otherwise, we might’ve ended up with something like True Detective Season 2 — all formula, no Adnan Syed/Matthew McConaughey. While Serial season 2 hasn’t inspired passionate hate-listeners, like True Detective, the Serial Reddit threads are still largely about Season 1.
So instead of getting too deep into Episode 5, I use this week’s blog to share my theories about why Season 2 isn’t so far as successful, despite it’s many virtues.You’re welcome, Serial producers.
- Murder is more entertaining.
I have long wondered why murder, of all crimes, is associated with lighter forms of entertainment. There’s a long legacy of comedy about murder detectives, but you would never see, for example, Rape, She Wrote. You would never play a board game in which you try to figure out who committed a violent hate crime against Professor Plum in the Library, with some rope and spray paint.
The fetishization of murder goes back. As a child, I had an Edward Gorey calendar of “Neglected Murderesses,” who looked so dear and innocent and surely didn’t mean to poison their husbands to death. What we wouldn’t see: the “Neglected Batterers.” I also had a picture book on famous assassins, for kids.
Comedies, board games, picture books, museum exhibits… It seems that, when it comes to fun crimes, culture jumps from stealing (“Those hilarious bumblin’ burglars!”) to murder, bypassing anything that leaves active bruising or trauma.
I’m not saying the awful, tragic death of Hae Min Lee falls into the category of a USA show. I’m also not saying that Serial Season 1 was light, but it did have some absurdly entertaining qualities that are hard to replicate when the story is about sustained, state-sanctioned torture. All of the inappropriate Koenig giggling in the world can’t make that happen.
But isn’t murder awful, the worst? We hate murder so much that we don’t see murderers as worthy of rehabilitation. Murder is the only crime that we often punish with more murder! If I had to choose, I would wish any lesser crimes, even disfiguring assault, on the people I love over murder.
Surely part of what makes murder compatible with lighter entertainment relates to the finality of death. The victim cannot speak, and so cannot upset us with the details of what happened. A murder victim leaves a chalk outline, which is itself a good set-up for physical humor. Also, the victim is no longer a witness, so murder leaves greater mystery around what happened.
Finally, I suppose murderers are seen as extraordinarily bad people, so they make great pure villains for any genre. Most of us can see robbing or punching someone, even on a good day, but we associate murdering with the very worst part of our humanity.
Who killed innocent Hae Min Lee? Was it the nice ex-boyfriend, the good student and Muslim? The stereotypical bad boy and small-time criminal? The new boyfriend, the Lens Crafter employee? A phantom, mythical serial killer in the neighborhood? The streaker? Each of these already fascinating characters is that much more interesting when considering that they could’ve killed this girl. Murder is entertaining on a level that far surpasses our interest in any other crime.
2. Season 2 is missing classic storytelling.
Film and TV writers learn that formula is king, and there are very few exceptions that do not refer in some way to breaking formula. Classic storytelling depends on three tentpole characters — hero, villian, and sidekick. The hero or main character has some kind of primary issue/flaw that defines his or her want and also gets in his or her way. Charles Foster Kane wants attention/love, Cher from Clueless has a superiority complex, and Hamlet needs a job. The villain presents an obstacle to the hero’s wants, but also a chance to overcome his or her issues by the third act. The sidekick isn’t just along for the ride, but pushes the hero on his/her journey through tension, like Hamlet’s ghost-dad or Eddie Murphy, very often. Some stories have more than one sidekick.
If Adnan Syed is the hero of Serial Season 1, then Jay Wilds is clearly his villain. Koenig would be his sidekick, kicking off his journey. There is another interpretation, with Koenig herself as a hero, drawn into figuring out this case via Adnan. Her opponent, then, would be the case itself, or the system that obscures truth at every turn. I think the season starts out one way and ends another, with Koenig arriving at resolution. (Dana Chivvis is her comedic sidekick or foil, but not one of the tentpole characters.)
With Season 2, we are missing any of this clarity. There is still some classic storytelling, but it’s happening per episode, and the cast keeps changing. Episode 3 (my favorite so far) was about hero Bowe vs. his Taliban-funded captors. Episode 5 seems to pit Bowe’s various champions across government and civilian society against the bureaucracy of Homeland Security. Bergdahl is mostly absent this episode.
This is Koenig’s promised “zoom” technique, described in episode 1, and it kind of works per episode. But it doesn’t feel like “one story, told week by week,” the Serial tagline. It doesn’t help that so many of the people that are interviewed cannot reveal their most important knowledge, in the interest of national security. This is played as a running joke, but it’s also an actual problem. As a whole, this episode leaves listeners wondering what questions this season is trying to solve.
I got excited when Dana Chivvis showed up this episode. I thought we’d get back some of the old season 1 magic. But then she gave a very basic interview — no comedy, no foiling.
I think Koenig could’ve maintained both zoom technique and story architecture, if she had committed to Bergdhal as flawed hero or put herself into the story more. She could’ve even broken ground by pivoting back and forth between our side and the Taliban, viewing each other as enemies. As it stands, we don’t know what journey to follow, or what to care about as we approach a finale…
And I really didn’t want to compare this podcast to True Detective Season 2.