Season 3 of Serial strikes a social justice stance

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So, we’re back in Cleveland. And now I’m going to do something completely shocking and unexpected: I’m going to suggest that you listen to the new season of Serial.

You’ve probably heard about it by now, and maybe you’ve even listened to the first few episodes since the season premiered on September 20. This is the true crime podcast that launched a thousand true crime podcasts, so I wasn’t planning to share my thoughts because I figured others had it covered. But now that we’re four episodes deep, it’s starting to feel like something important is brewing and I can’t resist weighing in.

In a departure from the previous two seasons, beloved OG podcast host and badass investigator Sarah Koenig is done delving through the details of a single case. The story is much larger in scope this time as Koenig addresses a question she’s heard constantly since covering Adnan Syed’s case: Is this really how the criminal justice system works?

According to Koenig, the short answer is no. Syed’s case was highly unusual, and studying an extreme outlier won’t help us understand what’s typical. This is Koenig’s goal for season three, because Americans who don’t cross paths with the justice system are likely to assume it works as an actual system. From the outside, it’s easy to imagine that the law is formulaic: “Criminal + offense – punishment = Justice.” But in reality, as Koenig gently explains to us, the law is mercurial, and each person’s fate depends highly on who they are. 

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To illustrate that point, Koenig and fellow reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year observing the everyday rhythms and activities of the Cleveland Justice Center. (Because, of course, Cleveland was the only city that gave them free rein to basically record whatever they wanted.) By analyzing the cases and anecdotes of regular people who pass through Cleveland’s court system, Koenig teases apart misconceptions and tries to paint a more accurate picture of what “law and order” actually means for ordinary Americans.

While reading reviews for season three, I was struck by Vanity Fair’s assertion that the season lacks a proper narrative through line; that Koenig’s choice to weave together multiple anecdotes feels unimpressive; that Koenig gives herself too much airtime over her subjects. I disagree, and because this review came out before the third episode premiered, I think the writer jumped the gun.

Although the warm-up might have felt slow, Koenig was priming listeners for the pivotal moment at the beginning of episode three, which opens with a recording from a meeting between Cleveland police liaisons and community members. When one of the voices at the meeting is revealed to be Samira Rice, the mother of murdered 12-year-old Tamir Rice, that’s when it becomes clear that Koenig is interested in telling a much bigger story.

In previous seasons Koenig established her journalistic approach as skeptical yet compassionate, professionally curious while clearly moved by the suffering of everyone involved in her stories. While Koenig maintains that integrity in season three, it’s clear that simply reporting the facts drove her to the inescapable truth – that our criminal justice system is incredibly and unbelievably broken.

We already knew Koenig was a brilliant storyteller, but I’m forever impressed by the way she leads listeners to naturally approach her conclusions. Reviewers often describe Koenig’s style as “economical,” and she guides listeners through the nuances of stories by “highlighting a disconnect between perception and the concrete, tangible consequences those assumptions can create.” She’s compassionate while asking probing questions, patient while encouraging listeners to hang with her and let her lay out her point along the way.

By weaving together interviews and anecdotes, Koenig is here to explain how the intersecting forces of wealth, race, class, privilege shape justice in Cleveland, with stories straight from the mouths of the people who live, work and suffer on the front lines. But we’re not just talking about Cleveland here, and that’s her most ominous implication: If you take a closer look at how justice operates in your neck of the woods, you might find it’s not all that different.

Are you listening to season three? What are your thoughts so far?