Serial | Podcast Review | January 6, 2016 | By , and

Serial: DUSTWUN

That’s me, calling the Taliban.


So, it’s back. After almost of year of silence on the Serial front, the sensation returns. In lieu of a more traditional review for the new episodes, Audiologue will be holding a roundtable Slack discussions to get the thoughts of a group of our contributors. So, without any further ado…

Eric: What were your expectations coming into season two of the show, particularly after the subject was scooped a few months before its release?

Nick: Expectations were high.

I intentionally avoided reading too much about the new season’s topic. I wasn’t sure how similar the structure would be to last time around, as that would be difficult to replicate. But, it was obvious they had their pick of what story to do, based on their past success.

Will: I was expecting the same quality of reporting we’ve come to expect from Sarah and This American Life, but also a come down from the incredible highs of season.

Eric: Early on, before I knew about the focus on Bowe Bergdahl, I’m sure I expected another mystery. Nominally Serial‘s only promise is one story told week by week, but after season one and how momentous it felt, going back to another high-stakes crime felt like the obvious—and maybe best—path forward.

But obviously that isn’t the direction the team decided to go.

Will: I think part of season one’s success came from millions of people discovering the power of audio and the TAL storytelling style, but a lot of it was that people love true crime. So when I heard season two was focusing on Bowe Bergdahl I kind of knew it would be a different experience.

Nick: I think I’m hooked again, but for different reasons. I think an exciting component to this story is that learning something fundamentally new is still possible. And the ending is not written. Deep down we knew last time around that the odds were slim that anything new would develop.

Will: Though I do think season one had a clear drop off halfway through—when all the facts had been laid out and it was clear that the true murderer wasn’t going to be unveiled at any point on the podcast.

Eric: Even in the earliest editorial choice of the episode, we saw them indicate the shift. After the ads (glad we got one last go-round with Mail Kimp) it was a cold open right into the case—no mention of the massive cultural event that was the first season.

Will: That said, I’m still expecting a crazy plot twist that brings us back to the way things were in season one. I want to know what his commanders were doing that was so bad he wanted to wander through Taliban occupied desert.

Eric: God I hope so. On this second listen, I noticed that he mentioned that he thought someone was in need of ‘psychological evaluation’ and Sarah promised to get into particulars later in the season. Which goes back to what nick was saying about the possibility of learning something new.

Nick: It definitely hits on several important major topics of public concern. We’ve got (veteran) mental health, US involvement in the Middle East, the potentially outdated and rigidly hierarchical leadership structure of the US military. ​

And on top of that, a soldier—an American soldier—was held captive for 5 years. I think there’s much more room this time around for water cooler and kitchen table discussions.

Eric: And even more than that, a lot of us forgot about [Bowe’s captivity] after the scuffle about his return. Sarah Koenig, Dana Chivvis, and Julie Snyder sat down with the New Yorker just before season two was released, and they were talking about the desire to humanize all levels of the situation.

At one point, one of them said the team wanted to create an environment in which reading about peace talks tied to this very long, very distant war in the Washington Post would be interesting and empathetically appealing. Sort of a Planet-Money, of war.

Will: But even though the topic is “important,” I don’t think those water cooler conversations are happening. A friend of mine scheduled a work meeting with me and the subject was DID ADNAN DO IT??? All anyone wants to tell me about season two is that they don’t like it as much as season one. I think the show is a victim of its own success—it will ALWAYS be compared to its first season.

Eric: Hell, they even changed the theme song because of it. They said the first iteration belonged too much to the Hae Min Lee case.

Will: I was so pumped to hear the theme again. :sob:

Nick: I liked the change! I heard the new theme and instantly knew this was a different story and would be a different experience. It’s more subtle of an intro, maybe even more mature?​

I just had good vibes from it. It was as close as a nod as we got to last season, and it explains how different the journey would be this time out.

Will: :clap:

Eric: The equivalent of a character on a television show getting a new haircut and glasses to show that time has passed.

Will: Let’s pretend season one never happened. What did y’all think of episode one?

I found the descriptions of the soldiers’ living conditions pretty appalling and eye opening. I knew war was bad, but I hadn’t imagined it so vividly, with US troops burning their feces. We hear about the death tolls and it’s easy to think about the loss of human lives that comes with war, but this description makes you realize how ugly war is on a day-to-day basis, even in moments of peace.

Eric: The “Hell Pit” of perpetually burning garbage was particularly vivid. The way the layered the audio, cutting to soldier after soldier describing how terrible OP Mest was powerful in the most non-literary way possible. No metaphor for bad conditions, just “we were living in the desert with dust and flies and burning our shit and garbage, and it was outright horrid.”

Nick: They say war is hell. And usually that makes you think of the combat portion, but this was something else entirely, and not something that hits the headlines.

Will: And, this is speculation, but I can imagine those conditions would push you to drastic actions…

Eric: While that part was pretty straightforward to understand, on the flip side there were all of the locations and military jargon. I was getting lost with some of the terms, locations and abbreviations they were describing, and so I’m really helpful they’ve expanded the amount of extra material available online. The fly-over, maps, and seeing the terms written was helpful.

It was one of the things I was nervous about going into the show, particularly with jargon (DUSTWUN: Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown) as the title of the first episode. All in all, though, I think the terminology and contextual description has been handled quite well.

And I think we are only going to see that power of contextualization—something that they were great at last season—becoming even more important as the story expands. I thought Sarah’s comparison to the Zoom children’s book was helpful. That at each point of zoom, the story looks one way, but as soon as you zoom out, it is something else you couldn’t imagine.

Will: It’s funny, I thought the description of zooming in and out was helpful, but thought the comparison to the children’s book wasn’t very relatable.

Nick: Yeah, same here. But I think the theme of viewing the story from different altitudes, or levels of detail, will continue to be a focus going forward.

Eric: I can’t help but have the sense that when Mark Boal [the filmmaker from Page One who Serial is working with on season two] sent Sarah those tapes to ask if he had any good audio, whatever she heard that really latched her into the story, whatever made her say, “Yes, this ​has to be our season two” hasn’t been aired yet. That is to say, they haven’t tipped their hand as to what makes this a tale worth telling.

Because what we’ve heard from Bowe, episodes two and three included, has been fascinating, but not novel. It is more or less what I expected him to say, even given my barely cursory knowledge of the story from when it was first being covered.

Will: Agreed. I know it might be unrealistic, but I really wish SK had interviewed Bowe. The sound quality bugs me and there hasn’t been much good tape.

Eric: See, I had the opposite reaction. I love that Mark is a character in the story, that we get to be the fly on the wall as Mark makes snacks, and Bowe tries his hand at cracking a rare joke. It makes the whole thing have a texture of, “oh, this happened to a real person exactly my age,” in a way that mayer a shotgun mic and a Sarah interview wouldn’t.

Nick: Yeah the only way this story develops, in my mind, is if we hear more from Bowe. I’m curious how different his story would be if he weren’t still a member of the military. Would he open up a little more if he wasn’t under the threat of life imprisonment for deserting?

And I agree [about the tape], Mark plays a vital role in getting a little more out of Bowe and making it feel like this is real.

Will: I think I have more faith in SK to get real emotion out of Bowe than y’all do.

Nick: I’m rooting for her, but yes I am a little skeptical

Eric: It’s not that I don’t have faith in her, I just like the character of the imperfect phone tape with Mark. Plus, I (again) get the sense that there’s some withholding on the part of the production team right now—that they have something really great, that perked their interest in the story that hasn’t been suggested to the audience yet. Maybe that there’s some really powerful confessional stuff that will come from Bowe.

Will: I think so too.

Eric: My money is on the tape surrounding his doubts in the leadership and the bad things happening within his unit.

Will: Same.

Eric: Where are you all hoping to see the rest of the season go?

Right now, for me, while the story is harrowing, in that it is about the capture of a man about our age in the midst of a war that’s been going on since he was ten, it isn’t gripping in the same way I might have expected given the type of storytelling we saw in season one. That I am waiting for the Nisha call or the cell phone data.

Will: I don’t really need the show to captivate me (and everyone I know) like season one did. It probably won’t be the best show of 2016 if it doesn’t, but I don’t think it needs to be what Season One was to be successful and do the story justice.

Eric: That’s a great point. The Taliban doesn’t have to be answering Sarah Koenig’s call from the phone booth at the Best Buy for this to be great, and important, radio storytelling.

Nick: I agree. While I think we all may have been looking for something with more shocking developments from week to week, the heart of the story is still compelling. The question of ​why​ becomes more important this season than the ​what.

Eric: That’s a great way to put it. Okay, let’s go ahead and button up this conversation with final thoughts or favorite/least favorite moments.

Nick: Sorry this is a little out of left field, but did SK sound a little different this go around? Like she was almost too aware of the Serial parodies and toned down her more pronounced vocal habits?

Eric: Hold on, let me cue up an episode from the first season…

She sounds different, but I think it is also that she is less emotionally invested at this point, as she is describing the backstory. It also is markedly different, because she—at this point—is so rarely the one interviewing.

Nick: That could be it. It would make sense. Your last point is probably even more important: we get less of her speaking.

Will: She’s such a talented narrator. It’s hard to carry a story the way she does.

Eric: Too true. I’ll go ahead and steal the obvious favorite moment from the episode:

taliban meme

Will: I would give years of my life to be as badass as SK was in that moment.

Eric: What a great way to close an episode. A mic drop if I’ve ever seen one. I’ll see you guys next week.

Will: I would give years of my life to be as badass as SK was in that moment.

Eric: What a great way to close an episode. A mic drop if I’ve ever seen one. I’ll see you guys next week.

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

Nick Wade is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he writes about The Sporkful and Stuff  You Should Know. You can find him at nick@audiologue.xyz.

Will Warren is a founding editor at Audiologue, and covers Radiolab for the site. You can find him on Twitter @willpwarren or via email at will@audiologue.xyz.

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