The Coldest Case in Laramie, the latest podcast from Serial Productions and The New York Times, is as much about the unsolved murder of Shelli Wiley as it is about the town she was murdered in. Host Kim Barker, an investigative reporter for the Times, grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, where Wiley was killed in her apartment in 1985, and her home set on fire. Barker was a teen at the time, and Wiley was a student at the University of Wyoming. Barker remembers, all those years back, trying to identify Wiley’s killer in a game of Ouija with her friends.
What makes the case so unsettling is not the murder alone, or its miserable mishandling by police, but the fact that neither of those things seem out of the ordinary for Laramie. At least, not according to Barker. “I’ve always remembered it as a mean town,” she says. “Uncommonly mean. A place of jagged edges and cold people.” She goes so far as to say living there was worse than reporting in Kabul during a war, or Islamabad during suicide bombings.
In episode one, Laramie is described with a gravity that makes it sound like another suspect in Wiley’s murder, or at least a witness. But as the show unfolds, that framework –– Laramie as personality, Laramie as degenerate driving its inhabitants to brutality and despair –– dissolves. Barker instead turns her attention purely to the details of the case and its actors. The problem with that, though, is the case isn’t all that interesting. It’s terribly sad, and frustratingly unsurprising in its lack of justice, but it’s nothing new: former cop is accused of murdering a young woman in what seems like an open-and-shut case with solid evidence pointing to his guilt, but charges against him are dropped. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before.
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Podcasts about stories like this one, precisely because they’re so numerous, can easily become stale. The Coldest Case in Laramie, with its common plot points, spare sound design, and Barker’s sedate speaking style, if at times all grimly compelling, mostly left me disappointed and a bit bored. Though well reported, the story ends up feeling frictionless for its predictability.
The podcast does have its moments. They’re small and sometimes easy to miss, partly because the show’s structure doesn’t emphasize them, but they’re what helped me piece together what the series is really about, or at least, what it wants to be about. In a number of interviews, Barker shows the myriad, unexpected ways that Shelli’s murder affected an entire network of people in Laramie. In one of those moments, a man Shelli was seeing around the time she died reveals that on the day of her funeral, he was more concerned about his upcoming football game than Shelli’s death. In another, the man who gave a false confession to Shelli’s murder explains that he did so in order to get the death penalty. These moments, almost alarmingly forthcoming, touch a nerve running through the series, one that it never fully explores.
The Coldest Case in Laramie wants to be a story about the mundanity of violence in a small, unsuspecting town in the American West, and the systemic failings of the U.S. legal system. It’s about Wiley’s murder, yes, but it also wants to be about the complexity of the human interactions surrounding that murder. And it almost is about that, but falls short.
Kat Rooney is a writer based in New York. You can reach her at [email protected]