Serial: The Case For Season Two

Unlike its first, celebrated, season, the second season of Serial kind of snuck up on me.

Today's installment is apparently the last one and I was really sad to hear that. Both because I thought this season was great — and because I haven't heard or read other people talking about it.

Which is a damned shame because in my opinion, season 2 is better than season 1. Here are my reasons:

1) It's an entirely different subject. This may be more of an argument in favor of the Serial approach as a whole rather than this individual season. But they deserve huge credit for taking on  a whole new subject (Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan and spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban) rather than going back to what had been so spectacularly successful in their debut (true crime).

2) It's not fair to call this less complicated — Adnan Syed's case was immensely complicated. And it's not really fair to say this has larger implications because I think Syed's case illustrates a LOT of problems with our justice system in general — even if most people who get all into stories like Serial or Making A Murderer seem to focus only on those individual stories. But Bergdahl's individual story, as investigated by Koenig, wound up telling a hugely important story in a way that it almost never gets told: how terrible conditions are for the soldiers we send to Afghanistan. Not because Bergdahl is some kind of hero. It's pretty clear that he was a young man who was more than a tad delusional about what his individual actions might mean and how he could accomplish his goals. But he's also, it turns out, a guy who washed out of Coast Guard boot camp — and then was accepted anyway when he enlisted in the Army. And anyone with any sense knows he is far from the only person not prepared to handle the conditions he faced when sent to Afghanistan, or any war zone. That's why PTSD is such a widespread problem — and has been from time immemorial. I think in this season, compared to last, host Sarah Koenig and her team did a much better job in conveying the wider social implications of the story they were telling. You really shouldn't listen to the last episode without going through them all — but that last episode was magnificent in spelling out the context. Bergdahl's story reminded me of works of literature from "The Red Badge of Courage" to "A Bell For Adano." I'm sure if I knew my classics better I'd be thinking of Homer, too. And it also made me think pretty hard about my responsibility, as an American citizen, toward the people we send off into these places. The season as a whole also gave me so much respect and compassion for the individual soldiers who served with and looked for Bergdahl. Those of us who don't have a lot of direct contact with the military can find it pretty easy to categorize and dismiss them but they are, wouldn't you know, a group of diverse, intelligent, complicated humans who, like Bergdahl, were trying to cope with some pretty horrific conditions. Because we, as a country, asked them to.

3) Another aspect of this season that I liked so much better was how much less personal the reporting felt. Probably because Koenig did not actually talk to Bergdahl — she was using tapes from filmmaker Mark Boal and his company, Page 1. I appreciated that little bit of distance because she spent less time obsessing about her feelings about her subject and more time just reporting the damned story. She still has that very personal reporting and editing style, in the This American Life vein, and that's totally cool. But I got a lot less of the "how does this story make me feel" vibe that occasionally annoyed me last time.

4) Maybe I should be glad that people aren't talking and writing obsessively about Serial this time ... because one of the other things that annoyed me in the first season was how it was geared and received as entertainment. I get it — I like true crime as much as most people. I read and watch my fair share. And I understand that when you make a story compelling, it gets attention. And that's good. But with subjects this serious — a murder and a murder conviction and the cascading consequences of one young man's reaction to terrible conditions in service of his country — treating it like an HBO drama just feels wrong. I was interested to see, just now, that Mark Boal's company Page 1 was set up "to explore the intersection between reporting and entertainment." At least according to Serial. That is a very interesting, and fraught, intersection indeed. I will be very interested to see what he does with the Bowe Bergdahl material.