‘Serial’ Podcast Returns With Guantánamo Bay Story Developed as a TV Series

The Sarah Koenig-hosted “Serial” podcast, a public radio show that helped popularize the podcasting medium following its first season’s 2014 release, is back for Season 4. This time, coming during the show’s 10th anniversary, it’s covering the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in a season simply titled “Guantánamo.” It’s a project that Koenig almost turned into a scripted TV series.

The effort to do a story about Guantánamo has been an ongoing project for Koenig and Dana Chivvis since 2015. That’s when they were able to go on a tour of the military base, home to the makeshift prison and court system set up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Koenig cohosts this season with Chivvis for the first time. Chivvis previously served as a producer on the show, notably featured as part of Season 1’s investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee and her alleged killer Adnan Syed.

The hosts explain in Season 4’s first episode that they never did a story on Guantánamo because they couldn’t get anyone at the time to open up to them — at least, not on the record.

“But, even as Guantánamo faded as a topic of national discussion, we kept thinking about it, wondering what was going on down there. We figured, there has got to be a way to do this story,” Koenig said.

She then talked briefly about a project she worked on that never saw the light of day. “We even tried writing a TV show about it, a fictionalized version of Guantánamo — which, humbling,” the podcaster added.

She left it at that on the show, but in a piece from their parent organization the New York Times, they noted that “Serial” producer Julie Snyder had the idea of developing a pilot inspired by Guantánamo. It allowed them to get people to speak with them on background rather than as named sources.

“That was when crazy, debauched stories started coming up,” Koenig told the Times.

Their faux-Guantánamo pilot script attracted interest from a production company in 2020, but Koenig instead decided to take another run at telling the longform radio version of the story. With some distance, they’ve been able to get people who worked at the base to detail their experiences — thus, “Serial” Season 4.

The series began as a spinoff of popular NPR series “This American Life,” ultimately being acquired by the New York Times in 2020. While this is the first season of the original podcast released since that acquisition, Serial Productions has released the shows “Nice White Parents,” “The Improvement Association” and “The Coldest Case in Laramie” over the past few years.

“Serial” has prompted a number of parodies of its true crime style over the years, from “Saturday Night Live” sketches to SNL’s Tina Fey playing Cinda Canning on “Only Murders in the Building,” a character clearly riffing off of Koenig and her public radio persona. Canning hosts the “Serial” soundalike “All Is Not Okay in Oklahoma.”

The new season appears somewhat reminiscent of the show’s second season, which covered former Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl and his own return to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members held at Guantánamo. It also followed his prosecution and dishonorable discharge from the military. The season received negative critical attention compared with its acclaimed first season as it shifted away from its initial true crime genre.

The show’s first season was previously developed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller for a potential behind-the-scenes series. The third season, which focused on the Cleveland criminal justice system, has been in development from HBO and LeBron James.

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