On the “unpopularity” of Serial Season 2 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I just finished listening to the final episode of DUSTWUN, Season 2 of the Serial podcast that covers the Bowe Bergdahl saga. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. I would especially recommend it to anyone who already holds strong feelings on the subject. Listening to it with a critical ear might not change your mind, but provide some nuance you may not have been aware of.

I’ve also been listening to Task & Purpose’s podcast that has followed each episode. It’s their first foray into podcasting and Lauren Katzenberg does a very good job of keeping things moving along. In their final episode, they talked about the relative unpopularity of this season of Serial, as opposed to the more popular Season 1. After hearing that, I started searching around to see if there was any data to support the idea that this season has been less popular. I was only able to come up with this post that says it did fine, in terms of popularity (measured by podcast downloads).

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year — what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

The vibe I got over the course of the season is a general sense of dissatisfaction from the audience, evidenced through discussions in social media. I’d blame this partly on the fact that the Berghdahl saga is unsettled, and partly because of the built-in bias of most listeners.

I couldn’t help but think that the supposed unpopularity might have been due to the ongoing disinterest in anything Iraq or Afghanistan unless it involves some form of military fetishization, evidenced most recently in the disappointing box office numbers of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

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