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Serial’s season 3 debut: high stakes, Shakespearean bar fights, and a return to form

So far, the show’s new season is a knockout.

Cleveland’s Justice Center complex.
Tim Evanson/Flickr
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.

Serial’s third season drops today, with plenty of anticipation about how it will compare to its game-changing, award-winning first season. And fans of the podcast are in luck — the first episode promises a season full of Serial’s best qualities, including the edge-of-your-seat crime-solving element of season one, as well as the exploration of multiple narratives that drove season two.

And if you’re new to Serial, season three is poised to be a great entry point, especially if you’re interested in the legal system or just like to hear compelling stories.

The 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 Adnan Syed’s in season one, 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 idea is 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.

We see all of that very clearly in the first episode, in which returning host Sarah Koenig reports on the first case of the season from start to finish, while navigating the wheelings and dealings of the Cleveland court system.

That might not sound gripping, or even entertaining, but it really, really is — thanks to the surprising twists in the case Koenig profiles, the characters involved, and the fact that even though it’s a “minor” crime, real consequences hang in the balance.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Serial season three, episode one.

Season three’s first case is about a bar fight, sexual harassment, and how easy it is for injustice to wreck the lives of the innocent.

Episode one centers on “Anna,” who’s got maybe the worst luck of any bar patron in Cleveland. Her story is small, and relatively minor in the vast scheme of the criminal justice system. But it’s also epic in scope — the Shakespearean saga of an innocent woman who did nothing wrong, provoked into a bar fight and ultimately corralled and arrested.

As documented by the bar’s video surveillance, Anna’s story goes like this: While she and a friend are visiting the bar, multiple male patrons begin hitting her — not hitting on her, but hitting her physically, by slapping her ass repeatedly.

The first patron does this without provocation, and when she asks him to stop, he keeps going, and another patron joins in. Anna eventually gets fed up and tries to defend herself — which is the moment when two women, both strangers who’ve apparently taken an instant dislike to her, join in and attack her.

Anna fights back, and in the middle of the ensuing melee, a cop approaches. Anna, flailing wildly, accidentally hits the cop — who immediately arrests her and charges her with felony assault on a peace officer.

She’s held for hours in a police car, and then held for four days in jail while awaiting release on a $5,000 bond. Oh, and she’s also the only person involved in the bar incident who gets arrested.

If that description fills you with a sense of outrage, you’re not alone; Koenig and Anna’s defense attorney, Russ, are both clearly righteously indignant over the whole scenario. Koenig arrives on the scene as Russ is preparing for Anna’s trial; he walks her, and us, through the story so far, including how the prosecutor rejected his initial request to drop the case.

From there, Koenig introduces each of the main players in depth: Anna herself, belligerent and no-nonsense but with a wry sense of irony about her fate; Russ, her plainspoken attorney, who’s baffled by the prosecutor’s insistence on pursuing the case; the prosecutor, Jennifer, who’s offended by what she deems to be Russ’s patronizing attitude toward her as a younger female colleague.

The episode is full of high drama. It’s also a great primer on how unpredictable court cases can be — and a great intro to the way the rest of Serial’s third season will function.

This first episode reminds us of why we love Sarah Koenig, and why we love Serial’s particular brand of intrigue

Koenig has always been a driving force, if not the driving force, behind Serial’s appeal. Rigorous, dedicated, and unafraid to be her awkwardly dorky self from time to time, Koenig’s humanizing nature makes even the stodgiest aspects of hairy court cases and legalese feel more interesting and accessible.

And it seems this aspect of her personality will be especially crucial to season three’s stories, because while the Cleveland Justice Center has given her plenty of access to its procedures, there are inherent systemic and racial inequalities that exist between the higher officials, the medium-level staff, and the people under arrest.

It all feels like potentially fraught terrain for Koenig to navigate, and for listeners to experience along with her, right from the start: In the episode’s opening “scene,” she tries to make awkward small talk in an elevator and fails brutally. We can tell she’s trying, but there’s a sense that the social dynamics of Serial’s quest to go behind the scenes of the inside of the law will perhaps be a hard nut for Koenig and her reporting partner, assistant producer Emmanuel Dzotsi, to crack.

Still, there’s enough excitement and intrigue — and genuine suspense, in trying to figure out how and why Anna’s fate will be decided — to carry us through this first case.

There will be trickier, more morally challenging cases to come as the series continues, and some of which will stretch over multiple episodes. But in season three’s first episode, Serial both returns to its roots and gives itself room to grow into something new. By offering a micro-level view of the way the justice system lives and breathes, it can examine the larger narrative questions it raised throughout its first two seasons. But this time, it’s set up to do so through the lens of how those questions impact the short- and long-term futures of many people at once, not just the players in one extraordinary case.

Whether the system is healthy and functional, or whether it’s on life support, are questions for the show to dig into as the season moves along. But for now, we’re just glad to be back on familiar dramatic territory, with Koenig guiding us through murky waters.