The first season of Serial was like the Fifty Shades of Grey of the podcasting world — not because of the subject matter, but because for a while there, everyone was talking about it. Producer Sarah Koenig tracked her process uncovering the details of 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee in real time. Every surprise breakthrough, every dead end — we were privy to it all. The second season looked at another epic case: The trial of the soldier Bowe Berghdal, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years after deserting his post.
Given the established pattern, you'd likely assume that season 3 of Serial, which premiered September 20, would focus on a similarly extraordinary case — but you would be wrong. In this ambitious, sprawling season, Koenig examines the entire criminal justice system through the lens of the city of Cleveland.
Why Cleveland, of all cities? The reason is simple: Whereas other cities have strenuous obstacles to recording in place, Cleveland courts allowed Koenig and her fellow producer, Ohio native Emmanuel Dzotsi, to record all courtroom proceedings, ranging from small cases (bar fights) to big ones (armed robberies). By doing so, Serial producers hope to illuminate the inner workings of the courts in a more realistic way than any episode of Law & Order ever could.
Despite having produced two seasons of Serial, Koenig was surprised by her journey into nitty gritty of the criminal justice system. But maybe that surprise is to be expected. After all, season 1 of Serial focused on a very extraordinary crime: Adnan Syed, the teenager accused of murdering Hae Min Lee, had no prior criminal record and had access to a very expensive lawyer. This season, on the other hand, is all about the ordinary.
“Every case Emmanuel and I followed, there came a point where we thought: ‘No, this can’t be how it works.' People who work in the system, or have been through the system, they know this. But millions more people do not. And for the past year I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door and wave people inside. Because things are happening — shocking things, fascinating things — in plain sight,” Koenig says at the start of episode 1, "A Bar Fight Walks Into The Justice Center."
Think of season 3 as a book of interconnected short stories, each originating in Cleveland's criminal justice complex, which Koenig describes as "hideous, but practical." All the crucial buildings to any case are located in the same compact geographic location: "The city and county courts, the county jail, the prosecutor’s offices, the Sheriff’s office, and headquarters for the Cleveland police." Koenig expertly creates a sense of place. In the hallways, she captures the idiosyncratic phone conversation manner of a renowned public defender. In the courts, she captures the candidness of women arrested for accidentally striking a police officer.
The first episode is a preview for how the rest of the season will proceed. Koenig follows a crime that, at first glance, seems too minor to be representative of the entire court system's injustices. But just within the handling of one bar altercation are enough injustices and inefficiencies to make any rational person incensed.
The bar's surveillance cameras capture the incident entirely. A woman who Koenig calls "Anna" is standing with her friend at the bar when some men begin to slap their asses. Anna, who in interviews comes off as frank and no-nonsense, fights back, inciting a bit of a brawl. After the police arrive, a flailing Anna accidentally strikes an officer. She's immediately charged with felony assault on a police officer, arrested, and held in jail for four days on $5,000 bond. Anna is the only individual to be arrested. "You guys are arresting me for no reason," Anna says while in the back of the cop car the evening of the fight. Then, for an hour, she issues an invective of slurs against the cops — which she admits to Koenig she was able to do because of her status as a white woman.
In following this case, Koenig highlights a cacophony of voices connected to the incident. She interviews Anna, of course, who seems bewildered this is even happening. She captures the anger in Anna's angry defense attorney Russ's voice after the prosecutor refuses to drop the case. She then pivots to the prosecutor, Jennifer, who is bitter at Russ's supposedly patronizing tone. Finally, Koenig speaks to an officer who admits that his colleagues sided with the men at the bar, not with Anna.
What ensues is a powerful story that touches on the intersection of sex, race, and power, and how the "reputation" of an individual, whether a lawyer or a defendant, often clouds fair proceedings. Thanks to Koenig's organization, this one story proceeds with the same momentum that we've seen in the past seasons' grand cases. Season 3 proves the existence of Serial's secret ingredient. It's not just the stories. It's Koenig herself, our trusty guide through murky waters. Her skeptical delivery, her well-worded rhetorical questions — these are the ingredients of a host that makes us think and keep us enraptured at the same time.
New episodes of season 3 of Serial will drop on Thursdays.