‘Serial’ is back, and Sarah Koenig’s still got it

There’s no way the second season of “Serial” could possibly live up to the first, right?

That extraordinary hit of a podcast from producers of “This American Life” was so thrilling and so unlike entertainment anyone had experienced before, that for a while it was all anyone could talk about. Did the long-imprisoned Adnan Syed actually kill his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee? Or was he innocent? Everyone had an opinion.

Season two debuted on Thursday and the story is quite different. It’s still a mystery, in a way. Our amiable narrator-investigator Sarah Koenig is trying to get to the bottom of what Bowe Bergdahl was really up to – and why – when he left his Army base in Afghanistan in 2009 and wandered into the desert only to get captured by Taliban fighters.

The verdict after listening to episode one? This is going to be good. That much was clear with Koenig’s last few lines after we heard her talking on the phone with a heavily accented man. “The Taliban’s version of Bowe’s capture? Next time on ‘Serial.’ ” And just like that we’re sucked back in.

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There were reasons to be skeptical about season two. For one thing, it was clear that Koenig and her producers were a little gunshy after the runaway success of the podcast. Amassing a huge following was nice, of course, but some of the byproducts of that visibility were disheartening.

There were the armchair detectives on Reddit who outed her anonymous sources; there were the articles that came out afterward, which questioned the journalist’s methods; there were the weird calls the producers got from random strangers with outlandish theories about the case. So it seemed like tracking down another titillating tale of true crime would be out.

Choosing to focus on Bowe Bergdahl was a brilliant decision. It is both a bigger story and, for the producers, a slightly less stressful one, being that it’s already so public. Anyone involved is most likely already used to the questions, unlike the sources during season one who had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Koenig and her team can’t take total credit for the idea. In episode one, she describes being approached by filmmaker Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker”), who had already interviewed Bergdahl extensively and amassed 25 hours of audio that both were willing to share with the “Serial” crew.

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So, does that mean Koenig is doing a lot less work this time around? Not remotely. In the first episode alone, she managed to track down a number of the soldiers who were stationed alongside Bergdahl in Afghanistan to piece together what exactly happened on the day he went missing.

They also give the listener a lot of valuable insights into what life was like on their hellish base known as Observation Post Mest. These details introduce doubt into the story that Bergdahl has already told, explaining that he left his platoon behind because he was a whistleblower who needed to tell the world about the bad leadership within his unit.

Essentially, this story becomes a lot like season one – a case of one person’s word against another. And there’s so much drama in that, even when murder and teenage love are not involved. Of course the fact that this is a huge exclusive for “Serial” – up to this point, Bergdahl hasn’t spoken to any reporters – makes the podcast all the more compelling.

And it sounds as if, over the course of this season, Koenig will be examining more than just what happened to Bergdahl. She’ll also be looking at how one man’s actions ended up having a huge butterfly effect. As Koenig puts it, “to get the full picture you have to go very, very small to one person’s life and very, very big to the war in Afghanistan.”

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Primetime TV take note: A murder isn’t necessary as an ingredient for thrilling drama. A great mystery is a great mystery, and listening to Koenig chase the truth is riveting beyond reason.

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