Serial returns to greatness with true crime smash for Season 4
The Coldest Case in Laramie, the newly released fourth season of Serial, is so deeply enjoyable and engrossing that it feels as though Serial has realized that it really is a true crime podcast, despite its loftier aspirations. Serial’s 2014 first season, which chronicled the dubious conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee, remains the G.O.A.T. podcast. It hasn’t been equaled despite inspiring hundreds of copycats.
Since that epic first season, which was not only must-hear story telling but fate-changing journalism, the show has slumped. Serial seasons Two and Three ranged from boring to unlistenable, with the nadir occurring as the story of American deserter Bowe Bergdahl virtually screamed, “How could anyone find this momzer interesting?”
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The Coldest Case in Laramie puts the champ back on firm ground, with plus writing, peerless editing, incredible music, and phenomenal overall sense of story, all married to a case that sometimes feels obvious, but really isn’t. As if to underline the link back to O.G. greatness, we even hear a jailhouse recorded phone call introduced by “IC Solutions” promising to monitor the call, the same message that became familiar in Season One before every call from Adnan Syed.
Kim Barker, who wrote the book that became the Tina Fay vehicle “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and shared a Pulitzer for the New York Times series on a disturbing pattern of police traffic stops that turned fatal, serves as host here. She returns home to Laramie, Wyoming, where the unsolved 1985 murder of Shelli Wiley, which occurred when Barker was in high school, has haunted her for more than 30 years. A former police officer is one of several suspects who’ve been looked at over the years—more than one has even kind of confessed. Barker is funny and wry, and her struggles with the “mean” town she left behind long ago provides much of the tension.
The result is an addictively listenable story told with nuance and skill.
Barker makes her contempt for Laramie a motivating piece of the investigation. The high school kids of the 1980s predictably made dog sounds in honor of her last name, and in spots here, she kind of pays them back. She describes a 39-year-old law officer as “looking like he’s on management track at Men’s Wearhouse.” How very New York Times of her. But she’s not entirely oblivious to how her pedigree might be received. Barker brings an admirable self-awareness about the way her bright red Prius and New York Times business card are likely to play in a city she has left behind for more glamorous pursuits.
Barker also displays automatic contempt for Laramie’s white residents and automatic empathy for its few minority residents, who were indeed harassed and suspected almost instantly. Naturally, there are accusations and insinuations of racism. And these 30+ year old tapes don’t do the Laramie Police Department any favors. They use the word “mulatto” to describe one young suspect and cast multiple aspersions on the victim’s supposed interest in Black athletes at the University of Wyoming. Oddly, the podcast itself undermines one of its strongest black voices when it censors him using a slur to describe how the police treated him. That’s the New York Times for ya.
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At the same time, the podcast gives beautiful and unforgettable voice to another player in the story, the son of a famous and excellent writer. It’s hard to describe his role without dropping spoilers, but he is an unforgettable character. And by the way, all the right wingers out there concerned that criminal justice reform has diluted our lust for punishment, know that this compelling character has been in jail for over 30 years for something he did as a mentally ill teenager. Doesn’t sound too lenient to me.
I do have some quibbles.
For one thing, what’s with Barker’s incredibly lo-fi recording? On about half of the phone calls she records, her side seems to have occurred with a far-away room mic in some kind of echoing annoying room. Worse are the in-person interviews.
One of her big scoops is landing an actual interview with the assistant police chief now investigating the case. Barker adeptly navigates through the “No Comment, ongoing investigation” riff that usually causes crib death for this kind of story. But she goes to interview the guy and only seems to mic him, not herself. You can’t hear her questions, and then, she and even her friend and sometime photographer Jasmin seem to be shouting things out. It’s actually endearing, because the enthusiasm is so real, but it’d have been nice to hear what was actually said.
This is not a minor issue; it actually undermines some of the excellent journalism. Barker scores an interview with colorful defense attorney Vaughn Neubauer. He is unusually forthright. He’s also the kind of articulate, folksy character a podcast like this can make into a star. He tells Barker that if his client, the former Laramie police officer Fred Lamb, turns out to be the murderer, he’ll “kiss your ass on Main Street.”
And half of this amazing interview—which is a key not just to understanding the case but for developing a sense of the guy’s credibility—is either missing or badly recorded. Barker clearly brought one microphone and is flipping it back-and-forth from her questions to his answers. But the delay as they talk to each other and develop rapport means you almost never hear the first part of the question or response. It’s incredibly jarring. I think it’s so damaging that they actually should have re-recorded her questions. Anyone who’s seen Broadcast News knows that’s a journalism sin. But it’s permissible if they disclose it. And better than completely losing some of her questions and parts of his answers.
Ultimately, these technical snafus and audio defects cannot derail this locomotive of journalism and story-telling. Season One of Serial created the model for “watercooler podcasts” because it was about so much more than the compelling “Did he really do it?” at its heart. It was also about an America struggling to get its arms around the different cultures—Muslim, Korean, Black—that came together in a Baltimore high school. The Coldest Case in Laramie succeeds because it, too, is about so much more than its crime. In Laramie, Kim Barker and the makers of Serial have found a town that time seems to have forgotten.
At one point, Barker describes an interviewee as the kind of guy from the mountain west who only speaks when he has something to say. You can practically hear her saying “you know, like Ennis Del Mar from Brokeback Mountain” without wanting to namecheck a fictional character in a nonfiction story.
The Coldest Case in Laramie deserves your attention. Not just because Shelli Wiley deserves justice. But because it’s a compelling portrait of America in the mid-80s and today.