Podcast review: Serial, Season 3 (4 stars)

Podcast review: Serial, Season 3

Serial

Third season of the addictive true crime podcast mixes up the format focusing on one crime per episode

It's a testament to the lightning-in-a-bottle success of 2014's first season of This American Life's true crime and investigative journalism podcast Serial that the announcement earlier this month of a third continuing instalment caused a flurry of excitement on social media. It's fair to say that – despite its many brilliances – the series has produced moments which have tested its listeners.

The first of them came towards the end of series one, when we realised that producer and presenter Sarah Koenig's cold case investigation into the 1999 murder of student Hae Min Lee in Baltimore wasn't a neatly-unfolding, pre-planned house of cards, but rather a weekly-updated enquiry whose ending was unclear; even now, the previously convicted Adnan Syed is awaiting a new trial. For 2015's season two, the cast and location moved to investigate the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier whose conflicted tale of capture by / desertion to the Taliban in Afghanistan threw up similar moral ambiguities to the Baltimore case.

While some listeners may have felt cheated when they realised that neat, black and white conclusions weren't going to be forthcoming from Koenig's investigations, this motif is the real brilliance of Serial, and lovers of pat courtroom finales can take it or leave it. In real life, doubt remains and one person's word really does sound as believable as another, and where finding an absolute answer might not always be possible, the point is that all the correct and logical questions have been asked in order to try to get as close to justice as possible.

Season 3 runs with these established themes, but neatly shifts the focus to ensure that listeners aren't holding on for a whole season to find out that no-one really knows anything. Granted unprecedented access to the justice centre in Cleveland, Ohio – where everything from the courts to the police headquarters is located – for a year, Koenig and the Serial team have this time chosen to focus on one particular crime per week, to show how the gears of American justice work; a subject which isn't far from international headlines these days, and certainly requires Koenig's thoughtful, introspective approach.

A case in point comes with the first episode, 'A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Centre', in which a young woman who is groped by a man in a bar gets into a drunken fight with the man's female friend and accidentally (or not) swings a connecting punch at a police officer, finding herself up in court for it. Using her forensic, curious, down-to-earth presentational style – surely one of the key features of Serial's success – Koenig walks through the workings of this trial and the lead-up to it, talking to the defence and prosecution attorneys, as well as taking snippets from other involved parties, witnesses and the defendant included.

The effect is to not just give us a slice-of-life of the American courts in action, but also to give thought to the implications of the process; in this case the effect on the defendant from the relatively positive outcome of what Koenig describes as a fairly simple case. The second episode ('You've Got Some Gauls') steps back for a wider view than just one single case, to profile an idiosyncratic judge whose sentencing is accompanied by paternalistic – some might even say inappropriately moralistic – life advice and instruction to those who pass through his court.

As ever with Serial, the outcomes of each situation aren't morally hard and fast, and an essential emphasis is placed on the vagaries of perspective. Yet if this new series borrows one thing from traditional crime fiction, it's that a short, sharp, done-in-one 'story of the week' is a satisfying format, which leaves the listener hungry – once again – for more.

The first two episodes of Serial Season 3 are available now, a new episode will be added every week.

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