The first season of Serial is over, and the reverberations from the world’s most infuriating podcast have only begun. It’s clear, however, that its outrageous success will yield at least two direct results over the next year: A few more advertising dollars plugged into potentially buzzy podcasts, and an explosion of the “true crime” genre across media. There are so many crimes, after all.
But the forthcoming flood of true crime stories — and the many other forms of crude Serial imitation we’re about to be inundated by! — from new and unlikely sources should be largely, if not exclusively, understood by the forces that produced them: a desire to capture some of Serial’s success, or at least its audience, paired with little intrinsic understanding of what actually made Serial a hit, or even genuine interest in true crime as a genre. We’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon over the last two years in the so-called longform boom (not coincidentally, much of this true crime ooze will be rendered in forms that are probably very long and, nearly as probably, serialized). Look, for instance, at the lushly rendered long things at one of the web’s premiere chum factories, The Weather Channel Dot Com, which exist not because of TWC’s deep commitment to storytelling, but to provide a sliver of a halo for a site whose most valuable front-page real estate is given over to stories like “You’ll Never Guess What Caused JFK Jr.’s Deadly Crash.”
As Serial should have made starkly clear, true crime stories are difficult to report rigorously, nearly as hard to write (or record) clearly, and just as arduous to edit conscientiously; true crime stories, at their best, aren’t just riveting but illuminating, uncovering something forgotten or buried. But much — most — of what will emerge directly from Serial’s slick afterbirth will be poorly reported, written, or edited, if not all three. This is true of much of the media produced every day, but the source of a true crime story’s power makes the consequences of screwing it up all the more grave: People, not just readers, will suffer, perhaps terribly, for it. (See, to some extent, the results of Rolling Stone’s intense desire to have a big rape story precisely when it did because it was The Right Moment for one — and it’s an institution that generally knows what’s it’s doing. Imagine what will happen at [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted].) In the Year of True Crime, every screen is a crime scene.