"Serial" is a podcast in which host Sarah Koenig details her own investigation into a potential wrongful imprisonment. It is the biggest podcast of all time. Before reigning podcast champion and "Best Show" host Tom Scharpling took his yearlong hiatus, "Serial" did not exist. On his first show back on Tuesday night, he mocked the podcast's ubiquity, saying the show's name in a throwback-to-old-time-episodic-radio voice: "Now people are saying, 'Oh, "Serial" invented podcasts'...what?...what is it, some kind of haunted house thing?"
As is often the case, Tom Scharpling is both joking and very, very serious. "Serial" is, at its heart, a haunted house. Like "This American Life," the popular documentary-style public-radio show "Serial" spun off from, it consists of carefully constructed paths that create the illusion of documented spontaneity and choice while pushing the audience toward a predetermined point, making sure their journeys vary enough that they feel they've done the work themselves. In "Serial," the onslaught of eked-out context and constant recontextualizing of what the audience heard before, week after week, functioned like distorting mirrors and moving walls, warping the much-debated mystery in the show so it never got boring but also never really progressed.
During its final season-one episode on Thursday, "Serial" revealed, via more carefully loaded language, that hopes of "solving the mystery" had been a hook and what it had actually all been about was how flawed and frustrating the legal system is in America. The problem is this message is painfully obvious, especially right now, and the podcast waited 11 episodes to even hint at the bigger picture. So, for your streaming pleasure I've suggested two movies that illustrate the dangers of using a murder investigation as a means to an end, that question rather than celebrate the scrappy investigators at their core, that focus on human tragedy instead of treating human lives as part of a game of smoke and mirrors.
Directed by David Fincher
Currently streaming via Netflix
"Zodiac" concerns the Zodiac serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1970s with a combination of murder and a great deal of media manipulation. Like "Serial," "Zodiac" is a hyper-subjective retelling of what followed after a real murder. Unlike "Serial," "Zodiac" chooses to examine, rather than create, the media hysteria and numerous obsessions that followed in the wake of the crimes and their fallout. It also feels like an answer to Fincher's own irresponsible crime story, "Seven." In place of the heightened reality of "Seven," "Zodiac" shows detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) going through an endless, all-too-realistic, "Dragnet"-esque slough of phone exchanges and tedious cross-county bureaucracy.
Fincher’s trademark technical approach is inverted too: subtle instead of bombastic, and handily refuting the assumption that old open cases can be brute-forced closed with new technology and big data. 1970s San Francisco is recreated with exhausting accuracy, including the ungainly technology of the time: Every television shows a pointedly distorted picture, contrasting with the incredible depth of the digital eye Fincher casts across it. And still, this perfectionist's recreation illuminated with impossible depth by all the technology of the day yields only more frustration.
"Zodiac" is about the impossibility and obsession of subjective truth. Every new piece of information affords one more false confidence that you know what the hell you're doing, especially in its second half when cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends years of his life trying to solve the case, and in the meantime loses his marriage and nearly his mind. David Fincher's director’s commentary on the Blu-ray/DVD provides a complementary lesson in obsession, an endless stream of contrite confessions to understandable and minute dramatic licenses, all taken so the story makes sense as a narrative. "Zodiac" left Fincher super conscious of the truth's impossibility. Only obsession could capture obsession so perfectly. Hearing "Serial" eagerly touting ambiguity as a starting point for DIY speculation is strange in a world that contains the self-aware and masterful "Zodiac."
"Broadchurch: Season One"
Now streaming via Netflix
The first season of British mini-series "Broadchurch" details the investigation following the discovery of 11-year-old Danny Latimer's body on the beach near a sleepy English seaside town, seen chiefly through the eyes of a visiting detective inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and an inexperienced local officer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who is also the mother of Danny's best friend.
While it's tempting to write "Broadchurch" off as another dead child standing in for the death of a small town's innocence, it would be incorrect. What plagues the large cast of small-town characters is less grief over the death of a child and more fear of scrutiny. The gut punch "Broadchurch" delivers in often-literal slow motion over its eight episodes is that the Latimer family's senseless tragedy is less of a remarkable event and more of an initiation into the way many in the town live: in the shadow of a tragedy. The histories of the people of "Broadchurch" are tragic and petty, full of inexplicable decisions and unknowable shame. Again and again, we are shown anyone trying to pave over this human wreckage to create a redemptive path for themselves, no matter how good their intent, is at best naive and worst, and most often, totally selfish.
There is also a studied, brutal lack of sympathy for the lies people tell themselves, with Ellie Miller's plucky, inexperienced cop, who is trying to solve the murder the decent way, getting punished the most. Instead of lionizing her for her bravery and sensitivity, "Broadchurch" repeatedly portrays her as a fish who has discovered water and is desperately trying to forget. "Broadchurch" takes familiar situations from regular crime procedurals and batters them against repeated, vicious deconstructions of the myth of closure, a fantasy promoted by mystery fiction that's as damaging and influential as any over-estimation of forensics. "Serial" fans may especially be unsettled by how much Miller's good intentions, personal involvement, and projected community values hinder the investigation and cloud the judgment of all involved. "Broadchurch's" ending too is unsettling and brave, ploughing suddenly in a direction as deflating and uncomfortable as it was plausible and cruel.