A brilliant byproduct of Sarah Koenig's storytelling in 'Serial'

Whether she was trying or not, Sarah Koenig did some brilliant anthropology in "Serial."

Earlier today I wrote about my frustration and annoyance with the final episode of Sarah Koenig's "Serial." (Read that here.)

She promised journalism and instead ended the podcast series tap dancing like someone on methamphetamines - telling us first how she would feel about the young man convicted of the crime if she were a juror, then how she would feel about him as a "human being walking down the street next week" - whatever that might mean. But not as a journalist.

OK, fine. The series was still a triumph, as I said, in the way it made a moribund medium, the podcast, red hot - reminding us that great content is great content in any delivery platform or system.

For those who haven't been following, you should know that the weekly, non-fiction account of a Baltimore murder involving students at Woodlawn High School is the media hit of the fall. At the center of the series are Hae Min Lee, who went missing in 1999 and whose body was found a few weeks later in Leakin Park, and her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.

There's one other thing this series did besides pump new life into podcasts. I sensed it from the beginning, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

I interviewed Koenig halfway through the series, but I didn't ask her about it, because I had not yet figured it out. But I now understand it's what made me feel something profound was happening with "Serial."

While Koenig was trying to solve a murder-mystery with a teen love story at its core, she managed, perhaps inadvertently, to provide an anthropological look at a subculture of teens and young adults whose lives play out in and around shopping malls.

Almost every other scene in "Serial" seems to involve either a mall, parking lot or someone who works at a store at or near a mall -- a store that sells eyeglasses at Owings Mills Mall or a video store at Golden Ring Mall or the Best Buy that might or might not have had a pay phone near the entrance.

Most young people who are students have the school they attend as an institutional pillar in their life. But not the young people in "Serial." If they are out of high school and not in college or attending as a commuter student, the shopping mall is the central institution in their lives. Even some of the high school seniors seem more attached to the mall than to their schools.

It's not surprising that kids who grow up in a sea of media messages urging them to be consumers come to think of the mall as the promised land, the place where consumption is king. They go on from school to work marginal jobs in that world.

To me, it's sad. But if you grow up in a sea of consumerist media messages, why wouldn't you think you can find love, happiness and fulfillment at the mall?

As Koenig explored the murder and the love story at the core of "Serial," she also did some great suburban anthropology - whether she was trying to or not.

I thought it was the narrator's voice, but in the end, the anthropology is what I came to admire most about the series.

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