Sorry, Netflix: Serial proves that the best shows shouldn’t be binged on

Every week, another morsel.
Every week, another morsel.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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It’s Wednesday, and I can barely stand the anticipation. After six agonizing days, I’m less than 24 hours away from being able to download a new episode of my newest obsession, and fall’s most riveting, addictive show: the weekly podcast Serial.

Of course, I’m far from the only one counting down to 6am ET Thursday. People around the world are obsessed with both the true crime podcast itself, and host Sarah Koenig’s year-long investigation of a Baltimore high school girl 1999’s murder, and her ex-boyfriend who is serving a life sentence for it. Eight weeks after its debut, Serial—in which Koenig doles out her findings in enthralling, weekly episodes—is now the world’s most popular podcast, downloaded an average of 1.4 million times per episode (up from a 1.26 million average last week). Apple says it’s the number one podcast in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, while also cracking the top 10 in countries like India, Germany and South Africa.

It’s also captured our imagination in a way no TV show has done this fall, and has the kind of deafening buzz and rabid fan base that any series would kill for. The unlikely global phenomenon is also the strongest proof in years that taut, weekly storytelling trumps the increasingly-popular binge-watching method that Netflix helped pioneer. As Veep actor Timothy Simons recently tweeted, “The success of @serial is a pretty stellar argument against the idea of releasing all eps of a tv show at once.”

Indeed, Serial is the anti-Netflix, showing how the best, most resonant stories are those that become shared experiences in which we have ample time to luxuriate in, digest, and obsess over each minute detail, dissecting it with coworkers, friends and online. Buzzfeed’s New York and Los Angeles offices have begun a weekly “Serial + Cereal” event, where staffers listen to new episodes together over breakfast. Some high school English teachers have replaced Shakespeare with Serial in their classrooms. Slate has created its own podcast devoted to discussing Serial—a podcast about another podcast. You could spend days falling down the Serial subreddit rabbit hole, where you’ll find an extensive, two-part rumination on the show from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon.

Ironically, many of Serial’s greatest pleasures would evaporate if the entire season could have been binge-watched like Willimon’s show. The story would feel disposable, robbed of dramatic heft. Netflix series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, in which the entire seasons are released simultaneously, are discussed fervently in the days and weeks after all those episodes premiere, but after that, interest quickly wanes. Amazon released the first season of its transcendent Transparent, fall’s best new series, on Sept. 26, exactly one week before Serial’s first two episodes dropped. Yet while Transparent already seems a distant memory less than two months later, the excitement around Serial is only growing by the week.

(That said, binge-watching does have one advantage, in that it has allowed people to quickly catch up on previous Serial episodes as the show’s popularity increased, much in the way that audiences discovered earlier seasons Breaking Bad on Netflix over the years and caught up in time for that drama’s bravura final season and record-breaking finale.)

Serial (not Serial) storytelling is hardly a new phenomenon. It has captivated audiences since the British “penny dreadful” fiction magazines from the 19th century, spreading to radio, the early days of film (especially the weekly Western serials) and television. Think back to the first season of Twin Peaks (which Showtime is reviving in 2016), or the early years of Lost, in which every episode was painstakingly analyzed and strip-mined for clues and easter eggs to the show’s big mysteries. Last year’s gripping British crime drama Broadchurch was a more recent example of this mass obsession—it was the most-tweeted UK drama ever—though its middling US adaptation, this fall’s Gracepoint, has failed to replicate that success.

But Serial has proven that our appetite for that kind of storytelling—whether fiction or nonfiction—is as robust as ever. People can’t resist a juicy whodunit, especially when there are dozens of possible suspects: Who killed Laura Palmer? Who shot J.R. Ewing? At the same time—and this is what many of the inevitable Serial copycats we’ll see in the coming year, both podcasts and TV series, will fail to grasp—the secret to the podcast’s success is due to much more than a gimmick. Instead, it’s Koenig’s sensational, layered storytelling, which takes characters and scenarios you’ve seen hundreds of times before and makes them seem fresh.

And most crucially, it’s each episode’s ability to slowly build upon all the details that have before it, an experience that is lost during binge-watching, where there’s no time to reflect on what you’ve just seen, because you’re immediately prompted to dive into the next episode. Serial has helped remind us of a fact that Netflix has been intent on obscuring: The best shows, like the best meals, aren’t meant to be gorged on; they’re supposed to be anticipated, cherished and reveled in.

This fall, I’ve enjoyed putting binge-watching on hold and rediscovering the joy of appointment television—er, appointment podcasts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to counting down the minutes until Episode 9.