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Serial season 3 drops this week. It’s poised to be even better than season 1.

Serial’s third season isn’t (just) about a murder, and that’s a good thing.

The Justice Center in Cleveland, with mural art by Adam Maida.
Moth Studio/Adam Maida; photo courtesy Serial
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If you’re a Serial fan, the biggest question you have about the podcast’s upcoming third season, which debuts this Thursday, September 20, probably has to do with how it will compare to season one. Will it deliver more of the thrilling true-crime scenarios that hooked you on the show (and possibly the podcast format) in the first place?

The short answer is yes — but possibly not in the way you might expect.

Serial is a paradox. It’s the show that launched a thousand true-crime podcasts and galvanized the podcasting industry, thanks to an electrifying first season that explored the case of Adnan Syed, who was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae min Lee, all when he was still a teenager. Thanks to Serial, millions of listeners became obsessed with the minutiae of cell phone tower pings, tracking down decade-old eyewitnesses, and endlessly debating Syed’s guilt or innocence.

But while its first season strategically took on a juicy true-crime scenario, it was never Serial’s goal to be a true-crime podcast. Rather, host Sarah Koenig and her production team always aimed to explore the problematic nature of narrative itself. And in season two, Serial took a different approach to showing us how difficult is to attain a clear idea of what the truth really is, no matter the story or subject, even when closely examining all the available facts.

Serial’s second season explored the nebulous facts surrounding the possible desertion of US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009. When it came out, Bergdahl was still awaiting his impending court-martial — at which he was ultimately dishonorably discharged — and many questions about the events surrounding his disappearance were still up for debate. But in grappling with larger questions of the cost of war at home and abroad, it made Serial’s emphasis on narrative abundantly clear.

That said, for many listeners, it was also kinda boring. Although the show’s Peabody-award-winning journalism was still on display, season two provided none of the cliffhangers or exciting mysteries-within-mysteries that defined season one.

After season two of Serial, its production team — the newly formed Serial Productions, headed by Serial producer Julie Snyder and This American Life veteran Ira Glass — launched 2017’s wildly popular S-Town, which had an almost novelistic quality that further solidified the production team’s interest in creating works with an emphasis on narrative and questions of truth. But S-Town also delivered a brand of on-edge storytelling, with gripping, buzz-generating questions, that was similar to Serial season one.

And so the crux of the anticipation surrounding season three of Serial is the question of whether it will be more like season two or season one. The true answer is neither, because it’s mostly something new entirely. But it’s also a lot closer in spirit to season one, which should make Serial fans happy, and arguably rope in plenty of first-time listeners as well.

Here are five important things to know about Serial season three, based on what I’ve gleaned from a preview of the first episode.

1) Serial season three is made up of smaller cases, but they’ll all fit within an overarching theme

Serial’s third season returns to the show’s roots with a look at the criminal justice system — this time with a close-up, day-to-day view. The setting is Cleveland’s Justice Center complex, which houses the city’s police department and its municipal and district courts; The Serial production team was granted a tremendous amount of access to the courthouse and its proceedings, which became the basis for each episode.

The season’s aim is to tackle questions of law and justice by looking not at a single case like Syed’s, but at a wide range of cases that come through the court, from more “trivial” day-to-day affairs to more serious ones like murder. The unfolding narrative promises to place these individual cases in the broader context of how effective America’s judicial system actually is, and who is ultimately impacted the most when it works or when it doesn’t.

2) The cases may be small, but they promise to be incredibly fascinating

So far, I’ve only listened to the first episode of season three, but I’m already hooked because it follows a case that, while tiny, feels epic in scope. The episode centers on an arrest resulting from a bar altercation, which may sound pretty routine. But it encompasses huge questions of morality, of guilt and innocence, and of police and attorney procedure. Crucially, it also has very high stakes: the real risk of a defendant who is arguably a victim, not a perpetrator, facing a serious injustice at the hands of the criminal justice system.

Though the case is over within a single episode, there are several twists and turns as it proceeds, and the factors involved in the defendant’s fate are as gripping and unpredictable as anything that happened in Serial’s first season. Additionally, the real-life characters involved in the episode are immediately engaging and easy to empathize with. If the rest of season three is as interesting as its first installment, Serial might outdo itself — while opening plenty of eyes to entire aspects of the justice system.

3) Investigative host Sarah Koenig is still a key “character,” but producer Julie Snyder is more firmly behind the scenes

One of the fun parts of Serial’s first season was hearing intrepid reporter Sarah Koenig go on mystery sleuthing adventures with her producer, Julie Snyder. In season three, Snyder takes more of a backseat role, while Koenig explores the Cleveland courthouse with her associate producer and longtime Ohio resident, Emmanuel Dzotsi. (If you want to get to know Emmanuel before the show, here he is discussing filmmaking and storytelling at his alma mater, Ohio State.)

4) The season one theme song is back — as a jauntier version of itself

There’s something classic and irresistible about the original Serial theme, scored by composer Nick Thorburn, which earwormed its way into listeners hearts in 2014 and went a long way toward capturing the show’s mystery and uniqueness. The season two theme song, which was also scored by Thorburn, doubled down on his distinctive piano music — but while it was nice, it just didn’t have the same feel.

Season three’s theme song essentially makes a full return to Serial’s season one theme, complete with that familiar five-note melodic motif you know and love. The difference? Perhaps as a nod to season three’s shift away from life-and-death stakes and toward cases that are more wide-ranging, the song itself has undergone a lighter work-over. This rendition is a jazzy uptempo version of the original. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but the breezier version of the tune quickly grew on me.

5) Alas, season three will be MailKhimp-free — but the new sponsor has big plans

Among 2014’s abundance of Serial memes, the most fun ones involved the inexplicable, instantly iconic ad for the podcast’s season one sponsor, MailChimp. This was primarily due to the hilarious way a young girl in the ad famously pronounced the company’s name: “Mail... Khimp?” (The pronunciation might have been baffling and inexplicable to most Americans, but the 14-year-old was actually from Norway, so English probably wasn’t her first language.) The incongruity of the ad turned MailChimp into a de facto character on Serial itself, and four years later, it’s still one of the show’s most enduring elements.

This season, however, is sponsored by Zip Recruiter. That means there are no Khimps on the docket. Instead, Zip Recruiter has touted that its ads will contain a “show within a show” called “Road to Hired.” We’re naturally imagining something like this, and we hope we’re right, because the meme payoff will clearly be mighty.

The first two episodes of Serial season three will premiere on September 20. After that, one new episode will be released every Thursday.

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