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Hard, original journalism carries 'Serial' to success

On Thursday, the first season of the smash-hit podcast Serial ended the only way it could have. And if you think I'm going to tell you how, you're crazy.

On Thursday, the first season of the smash-hit podcast


ended the only way it could have.

And if you think I'm going to tell you how, you're crazy.

More than 1.5 million listeners - a purported record for a podcast - had been biting their nails down to the elbow in anticipation. They got an ending that's being praised, moaned over, and satirized in the standard Internet ways. The call from here is: excellent. As in satisfying, thought-provoking for days, eminently bingeworthy, all but inevitable.

The 12-episode first season, by the makers of the syndicated show This American Life, focused on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. Now serving life in prison for that crime is Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend. Sarah Koenig, head producer, and her sidekicks Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, and Ira Glass, drove hands deep in the dirt and dug and sifted. We learned much about the people involved, and about murders, prosecutors, lawyers, evidence, and argument.

Serial succeeded, first, with incredibly hard, original journalism. Example: When they need to know whether in 1999, AT&T charged for a three-minute cellphone butt-call in Maryland, they track down the answer in a customer service agreement deep in the archives of the New York state courts.

Serial also started with a grabber of a first episode, "The Alibi," humane, thorough, passionate, which laid out the story and, despite its many mundane aspects, made us care. David Haglund and Rebecca Onion of Slate ranked "The Alibi" in fourth place on their list of the 25 best single podcasts of all time.

But that was before the last two installments, which may be even better. In Episode 11, "Rumors," Koenig agonizes over whether Syed is this good kid she likes so much, or a psychopath:

"To me this question is the hard center of Anand's case. Can you tell, really? Can you tell if someone has a crime like this in him? I think most of us think if we know someone well, we can tell. And we act as detectives all the time, gathering evidence, certain scenes we remember, or the look on someone's face, or that thing he said when he got mad, and then we act as judge of character. This is just a human thing. But of course it's slippery because it's so subjective."

Several pop-culture products of late have asked this existential question - can you ever actually know another person? - and come down on the dark side. Think of Gone Girl or Gracepoint, in which the answer is a big no.

Even more masterful is the last episode, "What We Know." The answer: not much. Talk about storytellers in agony. "Did we just spend a year applying excessive scrutiny to a perfectly ordinary case?" Koenig frets. Opinions flip-flop. The more we know, the less. One thing's clear: "This case is a mess, with holes that are bigger than they should be." There may even be an alternate suspect. This nearly run-of-the-mill case transcends itself and leads to worthy meditations.

That's the other way Serial did it: with a novel kind of journalistic storytelling, in which the tellers keep no emotional distance but rather bring their shifting feelings and opinions into the story. Why? Because, after all, that's how people tell stories. And because the tellers know that's how you're feeling. The doughty crew of Serial sustained that intimate contract with their huge and growing audience, down to Koenig's final decision, which fittingly straddles courtroom obligation and cosmic doubt.

Plans are for a second season, a new true tale. If it comes anywhere near this, it'll be exhausting to wait for and exciting to follow.