In August of 2015, Alan Jacobs proffered the following judgment about the world of podcasts: “So far it’s a medium of exceptional potential almost wholly unrealized.” Glancing through his cursory dismissals of several of the then-popular shows, two major hindrances become apparent:
- an over-reliance on the novelty of the medium
- a general lack of preparation (i.e., “People struggling to articulate for you stuff you could find out by looking it up on Wikipedia…”)
That latter hindrance is nearly a staple of the podcast genre—a locutionary aesthetic that prizes a kind of refined lack of refinement. By this point, most of us know that the descriptor “conversational” is usually a euphemism for a largely uninformed and amateurish sally down a pop culture rabbit hole, the whole thing punctuated by a volley of “ums,” “likes,” “you knows,” and “I feel likes.” Presumably, the near-total absence of formality in these exchanges is supposed to signify the kind of authenticity that’s lacking in the well-oiled machines of newsrooms. More often than not, however, it’s just inane. There’s a kind of poignancy to the fact that so many of these sputtering podcasts are credited with being “genuine,” “down to earth,” and “authentic.” Why do we want to overhear perfect strangers carrying on a natural “conversation” while we drive, work out, cook, or relieve ourselves? The whole thing reminds me of people who leave the TV on to feel less alone.In the Dark performs one of the vital acts of service we expect from responsible journalists: Calling to public attention the misdeeds of those in positions of unchecked power.
But this condescending podcasts-help-us-feel-less-lonely diagnostic is about as hollow as it is trite—the kind of swift analysis that becomes more tempting with age. In a rare moment of poetic whimsy, T. S. Eliot declared, “Old men should be explorers.” Alas, all too often they simply become wizened theorizers. Recall that many of the prognostications about the social isolation imposed by our smartphones were once directed at newspapers. Not to downplay the very real challenges posed by new technologies, but plenty of happy, well-adjusted folks listen to Radiolab while they do the dishes, just as plenty of happy, well-adjusted passengers sat “alone together” on trains as they gobbled up The Sunday Times.
I don’t listen to In the Dark because I’m lonely and alienated; I listen because the program’s intensely addictive qualities have nothing to do with the numerous gimmicks that usually propel true crime podcasts. Enumerating this multitude of gimmicks might be informative, but it certainly wouldn’t be very interesting. Suffice it to say, most of these strategies involve the careful repackaging of dusty information. If you’ve listened to Serial, S-Town, Up and Vanished, Atlanta Monster, or anything else in the digital whodunit compound, you’ll be readily familiar with this particular brand of making old news new news. Ezra Pound famously said that poetry is “news that stays news,” a definition that communicates the continued relevance of lasting vitality. Conversely, our habit of making old news new news is about as vital as the embalming process. If these moribund exercises in true crime sensationalism represent the best that podcasts have to offer, Jacobs’s disdain seems justified.
In a day and age when authors talk back in real time, it’s probably foolish to speak on behalf of one, but here goes: I think there’s a strong possibility that Alan Jacobs would actually like In the Dark. This statement isn’t just risky because Jacobs might @ me, though. His blog is a brief list of grievances with nary a word about what might constitute a successful podcast. He offers no criteria for such an evaluation, only the rather ambiguous assertion that “it’s a medium of exceptional potential almost wholly unrealized.” What it might look like fully realized Jacobs does not say.
Here’s what we can definitively say about In the Dark: the podcast doesn’t fall prey to either of the two besetting weaknesses that Jacobs outlines in his blog. The reporting that goes into the program is exhaustive and thorough; the writing, restrained and elegant. Madeleine Baran’s delivery is even-keel, unvarnished, confident. The production is professional and understated, and doesn’t lapse into the self-consciously lo-fi trappings of so many of the podcasts that try to feign gritty realism with sloppy recording techniques.
A brief (but necessary) excursus on the plot of each season: Season 1 focuses on the 27-year investigation into the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy from small-town Minnesota. The question is not, Who murdered Jacob? The question is, What went wrong? Why did a relatively straightforward murder case take so long to solve? The answer is equal parts infuriating and heartbreaking and certainly won’t calm the public suspicion surrounding law enforcement. Season 2 is about the 21-year legal battle of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi black man accused of a quadruple homicide who “has been tried 6 times for the same crime.” More striking than the number of trials is the fact that the same man, District Attorney Doug Evans, has repeatedly tried the case, enacting what appears to be a personal vendetta in a United States courtroom. The findings in this season are so appalling that they are liable to seriously undermine one’s confidence in the nation’s justice system. Having offered these brief synopses, I’m now confident that I’ve supplied you with ample context, and, since this is a podcast that’s fully capable of speaking for itself, I fully intend to let it do so.
One of the key distinguishing features of In the Dark is that it draws firm conclusions; it gives actual answers. The you-decide trope of so much of today’s true crime fare never makes an appearance. The show’s writers and producers, all of them professionals in their respective fields, begin with an investigation and then reveal their findings. If this sounds elementary, it isn’t. Podcasters are as ubiquitous as YouTube stars because anyone can do it. From a certain standpoint, we might relish the “disruptive” power of this DIY model. Then again, you’ve scanned the comments sections on various websites. Should we really celebrate the unfettered availability of these digital platforms? Though plenty of other podcasts display all the hallmarks of slick production, In the Dark is unique in eschewing the entire, folksy podcast ethos. It represents the medium coming into maturity. In short, you and your friends couldn’t pull of a show like this. At the risk of sounding unfair, the difference between Serial and In the Dark is roughly the difference between a show like COPS and a documentary like The Thin Blue Line.
Most of us are keenly aware that there’s an inherent tension in turning to real crimes for entertainment. The fact that we have a “true crime” genre points to a peculiarly modern pathology—namely, the simultaneous repulsion and seduction of aberrant human behavior. From Silence of the Lambs to Netflix’s Mindhunter, this obsession with the more exotic forms of sin has also wormed its way into our fiction. The current nadir might be Netflix’s indefensible I Am a Killer, a show that displays no apparent bashfulness about giving murderers the audience they so desperately crave. Presumably, humanity has always gawked at misbehavior, but our penchant for retreating to it, popcorn in hand, at the end of a long day should give us pause for thought.
Though far from sensational, In the Dark never allows its listeners to mistake it for entertainment. In Season 1, Baran reads the court transcript in which Jacob’s killer describes what he did to his victim. It’s unspeakable and listening to it is unbearable. It should be. These are real people and real lives. With its painstaking approach to the cases it investigates, In the Dark performs one of the vital acts of service we expect from responsible journalists: Calling to public attention the misdeeds of those in positions of unchecked power. So far, the podcast has exposed systemic negligence, professional incompetency, and overt racism, all operative within the U.S. justice system. It’s not a consoling message, but few of us would dispute that it’s a necessary one.
Lionel Trilling once wrote,
The naked act of representing, or contemplating human suffering is a self-indulgence, and it may be a cruelty. Between a tragedy and a spectacle in the Roman circus there is at least this much similarity, that the pleasure both afford derives from observing the pain of others. A tragedy is always on the verge of cruelty. What saves it from the actuality of cruelty is that it has intention beyond itself. This intention may be so simple a one as that of getting us to do something practical about the cause of the suffering or to help actual sufferers, or at least to feel that we should; or it may lead us to look beyond apparent causes to those which the author wishes us to think of as more real, such as Fate, or the will of the gods, or the will of God; or it may challenge our fortitude or intelligence or piety.
Most podcasts aim at nothing more than attracting and keeping the attention of an audience. In the Dark aims at awakening the conscience of its audience.
 Also, my work commute is long.
 Ostensibly, this mode of deferral honors the complexity of the justice system. In fact, what it usually does is display moral lethargy masquerading as principle.
 In Jonathan Demme’s film, Hannibal Lecter becomes a kind of malignant superhero, invincible in his shield of ingenious deviance. It’s a picture that’s both dangerous and sentimental. It’s dangerous because it glamorizes inhumanity, and it’s sentimental for the same reason. In truth, evil is rarely grandiose or brilliant. In the realm of pop culture, The Snowtown Murders is the antidote to our hyper-stylized serial killer flicks. To those who say, “It’s miserable to sit through!” I say, “Exactly.”
 These “documentaries” would be much more honest if they were hosted and narrated by carnival barkers.