From the start, host and reporter Sarah Koenig presents the 2018 season of Serial as a corrective to the universe-in-a-grain-of-sand approach typical of earlier seasons and much of the work of This American Life, from which Serial spun off. In a thematic departure, Koenig sets out to tell the story of structures, rather than merely structure a story. The first character is a “cluster of concrete towers” in downtown Cleveland, called the Justice Center, a name we’ll quickly come to understand as ironic, if not Orwellian. Host Sarah Koenig describes the structure as “hideous but practical”. Koenig and company have built each episode to function like steps along a path, to provide a spatial sense of the Justice Center and a conceptual sense of the social universe in which its denizens reside.
In addition to meticulous structuring, Koenig needs all her charm, all her storytelling prowess, and all the wry humour she can wring from the cases she investigates, because the story of the Cleveland Justice Center is an American horror story. It is a damning indictment of the toxic stew of white supremacy, class divides, a punitive philosophy of corrections, and bureaucratic malfeasance that makes it nearly impossible for justice to be served. In a set of several stories about individual cases that occasionally overlap, spill over into different episodes, and circle back through coincidences and thematic unities only to fracture again, Koenig and her colleague Emmanuel Dzotsi evoke a world of cascading injustices.