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‘Serial’ Stumbles At The Starting Line

Bowe Bergdahl circa 2009
Bowe Bergdahl circa 2009. Photo courtesy the United States Army.

At this time last year, millions of listeners around the world were waiting impatiently for the final episode of the first season of “Serial,” set to air December 18.

The podcast, a spin-off of “This American Life” devoted to longer-form nonfiction narrative, averaged more than 1.5 million listeners per episode in its first season. I was one of those listeners, riveted along with the rest by the story of a Baltimore teenager’s murder and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of her ex-boyfriend.

The “Serial” team had long been close-lipped on the subject matter of the two seasons that have been scheduled to follow their first, Peabody Award-winning series. But by September, rumors emerged that Season Two would focus on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who deserted his post in 2009 and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

A week ago, without warning, the first episode of the second season arrived, confirming that Bergdahl would be the podcast’s new topic. As the “Serial” website puts it, the podcast will spend this season trying “to find out why one idiosyncratic guy decided to walk away, into Afghanistan, and how the consequences of that decision have spun out wider and wider.”

It is a questionable choice. Unlike Hae Min Lee’s murder and Adnan Syed’s subsequent trial, there is no inherent mystery or drama in exploring the mind of a self-deluded, narcissistic 23-year-old. The Bergdahl case has already been widely covered in traditional news media, and it is hard to imagine many “Serial” listeners are not familiar with the basic facts. So far, at least, this story is not worth the time the “Serial” crew is asking of the audience or the support they are asking of their underwriters. It certainly is not, on its face, a strong follow-up to Season One.

Part of the problem is that Bergdahl is just not a hugely interesting character in his own right. If he had made it to Forward Operating Base Sharana, as he had planned, and inevitably found himself prosecuted by the military for walking out, no one would have cared. If the military had quickly recovered him by search, accident or tip-off instead of by a controversial prisoner swap, no one would care, either.

The story behind the prisoner swap itself might be worth the “Serial” crew’s time. When President Obama exchanged five Taliban-linked prisoners in order to secure Bergdahl’s release in 2014, he set off a debate that continues to rage. Just last week, a House Armed Services Committee report accused the administration of violating federal law in conducting the exchange; even the Democrats on the committee, in their dissent, conceded the Pentagon failed to keep Congress adequately informed. What went on at the White House to get Bergdahl home could be worthy of the sort of deep dive in which “Serial” specializes.

But that is not the story the show seems to be telling, at least judging by the first episode. Nor is it reasonable to expect the show to tackle that story while this administration is still in office.

This season also lacks the distance involved in Season One, as the story is still unfolding in a much more immediate sense. Bergdahl faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a rarely used charge carrying a potential penalty of life in prison. On Monday, the Army announced it would seek a general court-martial to prosecute Bergdahl, despite a recommendation from a preliminary hearing that he instead face a special court-martial, a milder proceeding.

Several publications, including The Washington Post and The Christina Science Monitor, ran articles speculating whether Bergdahl’s comments on “Serial” altered the course of his criminal case. It is unclear whether they did, though it is difficult to imagine he helped his cause. Even if Bergdahl’s comments did earn him the tougher court proceeding, it is hard to see this as any sort of miscarriage of justice based on his own words. In fact, the real mystery here is why Bergdahl’s lawyer let him give permission for “Serial” to use his taped conversations with filmmaker Mark Boal at all.

As things stand, Serial’s second season tells an extreme version of a garden-variety story: A young guy does something stupid and pays a fearsome price - in this case, much more fearsome than most. In the process, he puts a lot of people at risk. And, it seems, it is likely that he will ultimately be held accountable, though the end of the story has yet to be written.

With Syed, the legal process was as much the story as the story itself. Here, it strikes me that neither the process nor the story is very much of a story at all.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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