Few programs of any sort have had the impact of the podcast Serial.
Quibble all you want about the series' various problems (and they were legion) — its simple idea of telling a compelling, true mystery story over several installments ended up inspiring a multitude of copycats. (It certainly didn't hurt that the podcast was enormously popular.)
We increasingly tell stories in serialized formats now. Movies are part of gigantic, ongoing franchises. Young adult book series are the most popular novels at your local bookstore. And television, of course, is overrun with serials, both good and bad.
That impulse now extends to one of TV's most staid programs, the PBS warhorse Frontline. Long one of TV's best news programs, the series has never been as bland as its reputation. But it's not hard to imagine the producers of the show taking a look at something like Serial and wondering why they didn't have their very own version.
And now, in My Brother's Bomber, debuting Tuesday, September 29, they do. (As with all PBS programming, check local listings to see when it's airing in your area. If you're at all interested, you can watch the first hour right here.)
My Brother's Bomber is a good old-fashioned mystery
Now, it's highly unlikely that Frontline made My Brother's Bomber specifically as a way to have its own Serial. The film has obviously been in the works for years, to the degree that it includes footage from the tail end of the Libyan civil war of 2011.
But the three-part miniseries definitely doesn't hurt for being compared to Serial. It starts in a very similar place — with an investigator going over what we know about a particular tragedy (in this case, the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland) — then immediately starts twisting its tale in every direction. By the end of the first hour, there's a locked box full of potentially important documents (but no key), ties to other countries, and haunting footage of a supposed "reunion" of the men who may have carried out the attack.
What's even more impressive is the fact that this is the work of one man, filmmaker Ken Dornstein. Only one person, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was ever convicted of the bombing, and he was released from prison before he had completed his sentence. (He suffered from cancer and was allowed to return to Libya to die, though there was much controversy over just how serious his cancer was, and he lived for almost three years after release.)
Dornstein aims to track down the network of others who must have known about, helped with, or even planned the bombing. And at the top of that ladder is former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi himself — who may have ordered the bombing or at least known about it and let it proceed.
Dornstein has a personal reason to pursue this course of action, and it's right there in the title.
My Brother's Bomber is excellent about the bomber, not so great about the brother
If there's a portion of My Brother's Bomber that lags, it's the early going, when Ken Dornstein is explaining his connection to the bombing, which took the life of his brother, David. There are several scenes where Dornstein talks with his own children about why he's pursuing this quest, and while they strive to give the film a sense of personal stakes, they mostly seem a little lightweight compared to everything else.
There's probably good reason for this. By the time the first hour ends, Dornstein is hot on the trail of several potential suspects, and he's started to unravel a list that might lead to the conspirators who brought down a plane and took his brother's life. Dornstein might be driven by his emotions, but what he seems most driven by is a deeply held notion of justice deferred. Bombings like this aren't supposed to end without somebody in jail. That this one did seems to drive him more than anything.
Dornstein's personal connection to the bombing also runs right up against the sobering tone of the program he's a part of. Frontline is TV journalism's most careful, methodical outlet. It increasingly seems like the one program that's willing to pursue big stories in thorough fashion and take on difficult investigative work. And that makes it an important pillar of TV news, but it also leaves the show a little hamstrung when it goes for an emotional tone rather than "impartial analysis."
Still, the end of the first hour of My Brother's Bomber (all I've seen) is so compelling that you'll be likely to tune in for more. Frontline may not have been directly inspired by Serial, but it sure seems to have learned its biggest lesson: A compelling mystery with some juicy clues is always going to be worth checking out.
My Brother's Bomber airs Tuesday, September 29, October 6, and October 13 as part of PBS's Frontline series. You can watch online or check local listings to watch on TV.