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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“Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

I finally began listening to DUSTWUN on season 2 of Serial. I didn’t know about Serial until a couple of weeks ago when everyone in my social media started talking about it and acting very surprised that it was going to cover the Bowe Bergdahl saga – a topic I’ve purposely avoided writing about here.

Serial, for the uninitiated, is a series that premiered last year that tells a non-fiction story over a number of weeks, diving in deep for detail and drawing back wide for perspective. I only recently learned about it, but many of my friends seem obsessed with it in the way that some people grew obsessed with This American Life.

The cursory impression that I got is that the fact that Serial was going to cover this was weird because this is a military thing and that was outside of the supposed purview of Serial. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s just the vibe I was picking up from reading all of the posts.

Part of the reason I’ve purposely avoided writing about Bowe Bergdahl is because 1) he’s still in the Army, and 2) the arena is loud an venomous. Havok Journal recently ran a short piece that summed it up pretty nicely.

But with the excitement surrounding the new season of Serial, I decided to give it a try and I listened to the first episode.

The crux of episode 1 revolves around a series of interviews conducted by Mark Boal. Mark Boal is the journalist/screenwriter wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. He also wrote the expose about the Afghanistan “kill team” for Rolling Stone. I’ve always been a little put off by his style because, as I wrote a few years ago:

“Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposé – and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.”

The host of Serial, Sarah Koenig, addresses the non-chalance of Boal’s interview style, and it does make sense, as the interviews were conducted at length, over the phone, over multiple days. The interviews were not intended to be used in a radio program, but instead were to serve as source material for a film Boal is writing on the subject.

There comes a point in one of the interviews where Bergdahl is trying to explain his rationale for walking away from his post, essentially to cause a stir due to his absence in order to get an audience with a General so that he could explain in person how bad his unit’s command was. Before he begins, he needs to make sure Boal understands the context and terminology. The back and forth between them stops and Bergdahl asks “Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

There is a short silence. I can almost hear Boal stopping, suddenly more interested in what Bergdahl is about to say.

Again, from a couple of years ago.

“But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.”

I’ve since listened to episode 2, and the series is well-produced and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about what happened without the noise of the internet.

Also, Task & Purpose is covering the series in their own podcast. It features Lauren Katzenberg of T&P, James Weirick, a former USMC JAG, and Nate Bethea, a former Army infantry officer whose writing (and thinking) I admire. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think it might be an interesting thing to put on after an episode.

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