Serial has an ending. Season 1 is over and it has an ending. It’s just not the ending I, and the rest of the world have been trained to expect. There’s a good reason for this. Serial is what story telling by women looks like. And, it’s really good!
Okay. I made a broad generalization, which usually gets me into trouble. I’m married to an extremely atypical woman. I know not every woman is the same. The absurdity of saying, “Women want…” or “What women are really like is…” is more a demonstration of ignorance than it is about the nature of women. That said, there are norms and tendencies. We’ve got a whole field of mathematics that deals with it called Statistics.
What I’m saying is, let go of my generalization and go with me for a moment.
I was at the Orlando Film Festival screening ALGORITHM. Some of the people I met there were other filmmakers, some of whom were women. The conversations were great. One specific conversation stands out. It was with three lesbian women. They didn’t hate men. They were good people and I hope I can call them my friends. They were humans with a perspective and a story to tell. And they told it well.
Their film didn’t win any awards. It wasn’t even nominated for any awards. We talked about it right after the awards. Was it a qualitative problem? Sure. But, the quality may not be about artistic taste, but whether the world knows what to look for when a woman tells a story.
The standard narrative structure ALL of Hollywood follows is called The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell canonized that structure in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s definition isn’t prescriptive, like Hollywood takes it, but is descriptive. He didn’t write that this is what story must be like to be a good story. He simply analyzed stories through time and noticed trends.
There’s another trend, the vast majority of those stories are very masculine. They are the story of what it is to be a man. They have been told so often that stories that don’t follow that mold… we don’t like them, not because they’re not good, but because we’re not really sure what to do with them.
The Hero’s Journey is the story of a reluctant man, finally taking up the cause and fighting the dragon, rescuing X, and returning home.
That’s the story of a man.
It’s not the story of a woman. Women are more social, and so their stories will include more ambiguities, a lack of resolution on the epic journey. The woman’s stories will be of human connections and feelings. That’s not to imply they're illogical. They’re not… not any more than a man going off to fight a dragon is illogical (and it is).
And now we get back to Serial.
Serial is the story of a murder, of the boy/man (Adnan) who is in jail for it, and of a journalist exploring the evidence to see if it adds up to the conclusion the courts came to. The journalist is a woman: Sarah Koenig.
Koenig had a job at the Baltimore Sun, but eventually came to work at the radio show This American Life. Serial is a spinoff of This American Life, with a very similar style. That makes sense because why fix a model that worked so well.
But, while This American Life was run and often hosted by a man, Ira Glass, Serial is run by Sarah Koenig. And that makes all the difference.
So, when we come to Serial, we are looking at the evidence. We are examining cell phone data and conversations. We’re reviewing testimonies. But, under that evidence is the human story, of relationships. It’s about who loves who, who is friends with who, who is lying, who is telling the truth. The facts are ambiguous. What’s not ambiguous, or rather, what’s not abnormally ambiguous are the emotions.
The emotions are real. Adnan is a real man. We hear his voice over the phone. We hear his emotional responses, to the questions, to the type of questions. We hear Adnan’s mother. We hear her mother’s heart, her faith in her son. We hear about the hopes and dreams of these kids and the directions their lives were heading prior to the murder.
As an audience, when we come to Serial, we expect The Hero’s Journey. We expect Adnan to go free, or to be unequivocally guilty. But, that’s a man’s story. And that’s not what Serial is.
Serial’s strength isn’t in the quality of the reporting, although Koenig’s journalistic integrity easily exceeds that of much of the blogosphere. It’s not the compelling voice of Sarah and how captivating she is to listen to. She’s a journalist, not a voice actor. That wasn’t what was great about This American Life and it’s not what’s great about Serial.
What’s great about Serial is the emotional connections Koenig creates as she introduces us to people, as she weaves her story and shows us humans, some like us, some not, but all human, all filled with real feelings about their situation.
Serial isn’t The Hero’s Journey. Serial is an emotional journey. It’s a story told from the perspective of a woman. And it’s great.
I look forward to Season 2, which will be coming because apparently so does the rest of the world. Serial ran a funding campaign mid-Season 1 to fund Season 2. It was very successful. That makes me happy.