The Strange Intimacy of ‘Serial’

November 26, 2014 2:58 PM

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My wife Heather and I are both avid listeners of "Serial," the public radio podcast that reinvestigates a 1999 murder in Woodlawn, Maryland — just a few miles from Baltimore, where, as it happens, we live. A couple of weeks ago Heather had to take a medical licensing exam at an office park in Woodlawn itself, and as we drove out we realized we were passing through the show's geography. Our car suddenly became very grave. "So this is it," I said as we went through Leakin Park, where the victim's body had been discovered, and I realized my voice sounded solemn, a little church-y. We had our eyes out — everything seemed like it could be tinged with significance — the basic sociocultural advertising of the place, the size of the high school, and the dimensions of its roads (which figure in the murder). How shady was it, how safe, how diverse? I mean, ridiculous, right? What a couple of big-eyed yuppie weirdos. But of course this put us not so far from the style of the show's producer, narrator, and star, Sarah Koenig, who plays herself as a kind of amiable, obsessed doofus who troops through Woodlawn, a place she doesn't really know, looking for truths about the place and its inhabitants that the natives might have missed, in the hopes that she might right a wrong.

Something has bothered me a little bit about this pose ever since last week's episode. Since then, two high-profile critiques (one by Jay Caspian Kang, at the Awl, and another, somewhat less compelling, by Julie Carrie Wong at BuzzFeed) have made different versions of the same argument: that Koenig,...

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