From "the greatest podcast ever made" to "shamelessly exploitative": A guide to the "Serial" backlash

"Serial" skyrocketed to popularity -- so like clockwork, the internet has begun to hate on it. Here's your primer

Published November 17, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

It’s a trajectory almost as old as the Internet: Something arrives on the cultural scene; people like it; it becomes a media obsession (think “Girls,” “True Detective,” “Too Many Cooks"). Laudatory think pieces are published, parodies spawned. The obsession reaches critical mass. And then, seemingly overnight, the mood shifts. Backlash, much like death and taxes, comes inevitably for all those things we love.

Such is the sad case with "Serial," the new smash hit podcast from Sarah Koenig and the creators of “This American Life.” Serial follows one story week by week — specifically, the story of Adnan Syed, who was accused of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 when they were both students at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School. Koenig is the narrator and audience proxy, unraveling new clues to the investigation each episode.

The media loved "Serial."  The New Yorker called "Serial" “the podcast we’ve been waiting for.” And the Telegraph labeled it “the greatest podcast ever made," "The Wire" of podcasts.” As millions of Americans flocked online to obsess over the “The Asia call" and the Best Buy parking lot and to parse theories and clues on Twitter and Reddit, “Serial” soon became the fastest podcast to get 5 million downloads on iTunes. So it was inevitable that the backlash would soon start brewing. Thus, here's a handy primer to all the things people currently dislike about "Serial":

Its journalistic ethics:

A piece in Spook magazine on Nov. 5 was one of the first pieces to lay out the problems with “Serial." In it, writer Stephanie Van Schilt examines our obsession with “dead girl dramas,” and the problem with presenting a real-life tragedy as a sensationalized, TV-style drama. As Schilt writes, "This entertainment factor leaves a bitter taste because Lee isn’t Laura Palmer, she can’t be resurrected in a fictional land of flashbacks and surreal dream sequences. Lee is real and she’s dead.”

Its creepy voyeurism:

A piece on Digital Spy this Sunday, titled “Are we enjoying this amazing podcast a bit too much,” levied accusations of voyeurism, highlighting the harm in treating real people like objects in our very own murder mystery game.

Schilt also questions the ethicality of Koenig’s storytelling, particularly the tendency to deliberately withhold information to serve the narrative. As she writes: “All the while, the moral realities of this kind of reportage remain unacknowledged (how do Lee’s family feel about this? Are they listening?).” While it appears that Koenig has been unable to track down Lee’s family, the victim has been conspicuously absent from the story so far, relegated to a footnote as the suspects in her killing take center stage. Is Koenig, Schilt asks damningly, "unwittingly murdering the victim by silencing her in her own story?”

Its creepy fans:

On Nov. 8, the Atlantic published a piece called "Is It Wrong to Be Hooked on Serial?" arguing that the problem is not with the way the show is presented (serialized nonfiction is an age-old journalistic format) but with the aggressive fandom that the show has spawned. Writer Adrienne LaFrance points to the sprawling online ecosystem that "Serial's" listeners have built around the show -- the proliferation of conspiracy theories, amateur sleuthing (largely on Reddit) and weekly recaps from sites like Slate -- pointing out that there’s something disorienting “about the way the conversation about the show feels akin to the kind of discussion you might find on a subreddit about Lost.” LaFrance continues: “What is it, exactly, that people are participating in here? Are Serial listeners in it for the important examination of the criminal justice system? Or are we trawling through a grieving family's pain as a form of entertainment?”

Its treatment of race:

The backlash train really began to pick up steam this week, with the release of two major pieces that focused less on Koenig’s narrative ethics — although that is certainly a part of it — than on the show’s treatment of race. These criticisms feel inevitable given the circumstances of the production: Koenig is a white reporter and almost all of the subjects of the story are minorities. On Nov. 13, Jay Caspian Kang wrote a story for the Awl titled "'Serial' and White Reporter Privilege," arguing that Koenig exemplifies white privilege in journalism and criticizes Koenig's tendency to go “stomping through communities that she does not understand."

Its treatment of race in sticking to the "model minority myth":

Then, on Nov. 16, BuzzFeed published a lengthy piece called "The Problem With 'Serial' and the Model Minority Myth.” In the piece, writer Julia Carrie Wong says that the most recent episode, “The Deal With Jay,” was the moment wherein her "reaction to Koenig and her all-white production team’s attempts to portray non-white subjects tipped from discomfort to distress.”  In the BuzzFeed piece, Wong argues that Koenig repeatedly invokes the racial trope of the “model minority,” from Hae, — "smart and beautiful and cheerful and a great athlete" —  to Adnan — "honor roll student, volunteer EMT… star runner on the track team … homecoming king” —  and that she, in turn, paints Jay as their foil, “the threatening and untrustworthy black man.” In Wong's opinion, Adnan’s status as a model minority is the ultimate reason for Koenig’s interest in the case: She can't believe that a a nice, well-behaved South Asian boy could actually be a brutal murderer.

It’s safe to say that more criticisms of "Serial" will follow, much of it valid and valuable. But if you’re starting to reach backlash fatigue, and you just want to go back to laughing about how that kid says “Mail Kimp,” don’t worry — there’s always phase three: the backlash to the backlash. See you there!

By Anna Silman

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