'Serial' returns: What to know about the series' third season

The podcast from "This American Life" creators is back and focused on Cleveland.

When "Serial," an investigative journalism podcast, debuted in 2014, it gained a cult-like following and skyrocketed to the top of iTunes immediately.

Hosted by "This American Life" producer Sarah Koenig, Season 1 explored the murder trial of Adnan Syed, who, in 1999, was arrested and later convicted of killing his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Conversations over Syed's guilt (he insisted that he did not kill Lee), as well as issues about race made "Serial" a must-listen.

The popularity of the show prompted Koenig and her co-creator Julie Snyder to release Season 2 a year later, this time focusing Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was captured by the Taliban after disappearing from his post in Afghanistan, and later pleaded guilty to desertion. Season two went bi-weekly, which prompted some to wonder whether "Serial" was losing momentum, though producers told Entertainment Weekly in 2016 that download numbers for Season 2 outpaced that of Season 1.

And now, today, Koenig and Snyder have released the first installment of Season 3. Curious about what to expect? Here are a few things to know:

1. It's set in Cleveland: For Season 3, Koenig and reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a considerable amount of time at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in Cleveland, looking into everyday court cases. "Inside these ordinary cases we found the troubling machinery of the criminal justice system on full display," Koenig said in a preview for the show. "We chose Cleveland, because they let us record everywhere — courtrooms, back hallways, judges’ chambers, prosecutors’ offices. And then we followed those cases outside the building, into neighborhoods, into people’s houses, and into prison."

2. It's more macro than previous seasons: Season 3 represents a departure from both Seasons 1 and 2, in that it focuses on the criminal justice system as a whole, rather than one compelling case. “The mission was to find out how the system works in a day-to-day, ground-floor way," Koenig said in an interview with Cleveland Scene. "You always hear, ‘It’s broken,’ and ‘It’s so out of whack.’ So we were just like, where can we see it? Where can we see how this works?”

3. The cases are wide-ranging in subject matter: Koenig told Cleveland Scene that Season 3 of "Serial" will feature "at least a half dozen [stories] in depth... with a lot of others that got drawn in in a less intense way." Some of the cases are small -- the first episode focuses on a bar fight that got out of hand -- while others are much bigger in scope. One of the most notable cases the podcast will delve into is the 2015 shooting death of of five-month-old Avielle Wakefield, the third child to be killed on the city's east side a very short period of time. “Some of the episodes are connected,” Koenig told Cleveland Scene, “and sometimes characters appear and re-appear in later episodes. But basically, we followed a bunch of cases over time. I know that doesn’t sound sexy, but to me it was fascinating.”

4. Cleveland officials aren't thrilled about it: Though Koenig and Dzotsi were able to tape in court, "Serial" Season 3 will not feature interviews with members of the mayor's office or the police department, according to Cleveland Scene. “We tried and tried,” Koenig said. “It was very difficult because they just did not want to talk to us. You end up doing what you do as a reporter — you know, off the record, off the record, off the record — and I feel we got an understanding at least. But yeah, nothing on-record. I really felt for you guys [local reporters]. It would make me insane. Whenever I see information in Cleveland now, I realize how hard reporters had to work to get it. The city is not forthcoming. And not to get too high-falutin’, but it’s a problem for democracy.”

5. Critics seem to like it: There aren't a lot of reviews available, but those who have critiqued the first episode of "Serial," Season 3 seem to be fans. "At its peak, the first episode of this season fuses together two kinds of highs: the dopamine hit of a really good journalistic study, and the warm pitter-patter of a workplace drama," read a critique in Vulture. "Between the richness of the script and the scale of its scope and the crispness of its execution — did I mention that the revamped theme song is just delicious this season? — Serial’s third season is off on a fantastic start. I can’t wait for more." Added a reviewer from Vox: "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 1, as well as the exploration of multiple narratives that drove Season 2." The write-up from the Financial Times is a bit more measured, but positive nonetheless. "The show is unlikely to set the internet ablaze in the way that the first season did, since that was an anomaly in which a growing format with no firm identity found its ideal partner," the critic wrote. "Serial’s third season is, nonetheless, a smart documentary that sheds light on a murky, complex system and is testament to the curiosity, skill and tenacity of Koenig and her team."