Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
TV viewers are accustomed to setting aside their disbelief to invest in a fictional cast of characters with fictional jobs and fictional lives. This is the contract we all make with the boob tube. But, save for an occasional spinoff, each television script is a universe unto itself—in other words, we don’t expect the cops of True Detective to wander into the Pawnee Parks and Recreation building. But in the heyday of network television, Tom Fontana wrote for St. Elsewhere and concocted a series finale that, with the help of an autistic character and a snow globe, built a dreamworld inside the fictional universe of the show—a move that divided fans but still lives on as one of the guttiest plot twists in television history. Later Fontana found ways to write St. Elsewhere‘s doctors into the scenes of CBS’s most popular show, Cheers, a new iteration of his Inception approach to scriptwriting. But it didn’t stop there, because a decade later Fontana inspired The Wire, X-Files, and Arrested Development to feature Detective John Munch, a character he wrote who originally appeared on Homicide: Life on the Streets. And it rippled out from there, with characters, events, brand names jumping from script to script, knocking fictional worlds together. If you imagine every crossover appearance as one character taking residence in another fictional world, irrevocably fusing together distinct creations, you can start to imagine television as one linked universe. Imaginary Worlds lights up the neuron paths between these parallel universes, even suggesting that we could be living inside our very own snow globe.
At less than six months old, WNYC’s Only Human is a show still finding its footing—which is what makes this week’s episode particularly exciting. “Bacon, Booze & the Search for the Fountain of Youth” is introduced as investigating the lives of supercentarians to discover the keys to their longevity. We hear about Jeanne Calment, a French woman, who was the oldest person in recorded history living to the right, bright age of 122. For a time, she was something of a celebrity, and people seeking the proverbial fountain of youth looked to her lifestyle for hints of how they might extend their lives. But the moment she died, the world shifted its attention to the next oldest living person. And this is where Only Human pushes past its initial point of inquiry and begins exploring something a little darker, and a little more interesting. Listeners meet Susannah Mushatt Jones, a Brooklyn resident, who now bears the noble distinction of outliving everyone else alive at this moment. When she turned 116 in July 2015, the press came out in droves to celebrate the occasion—but it’s not entirely clear if they were celebrating with her or celebrating at her. Jones doesn’t have the same quality of life she had a few years ago. She doesn’t talk much. Most of the time she wants to sleep. But this isn’t what the public wants to see. When fear of mortality meets celebrity culture, what you get is a charade of a birthday party where no one is quite sure who—or what—they’re celebrating.
Megan Tan’s podcast about negotiating your twenties returns for a second season, and this time she’s turned the mic on her peers. Whereas season one focused on a very specific narrative—that is, her own career trajectory—this season brings in others’ perspectives about what it means to be a 20-something. It begins with Tan perusing Facebook and wistfully comparing her life to those of people who have set sail to strange and exotic places—a feeling familiar to people of any age. We hear from Kinley, an old friend of Tan’s boyfriend, who did just that—left home to explore the world after college. This is a fantasy many millennials are pros at turning into a reality. It represents the idea of worldliness, expansion, and new heights. And one need look no further than Facebook and Instagram to see photographs that seem to definitively prove how fulfilling these escapades can be. But how does the truth of the experience stack up against appearances? Tan masterfully weaves in her own Mexican adventure as a vehicle to explore this question, but the show no longer feels like it’s about her. It’s about all of us—millennials, gen-x’ers, baby boomers, and everyone in between—who has looked out at the wide ocean and wondered if things might be different if we just pulled up our anchors.
Reveal is a podcast that won’t let its listeners take anything for granted. Through top-shelf investigative journalism, the show exposes corruption in every industry, from faceless bureaucratic agencies to the men and women we entrust with the care of our eldest population. What’s more, the podcast manages to foster concern and empathy about even the most decidedly unsexy of topics. Take this week’s subject: the temp work industry. It’s likely that most listeners have never given this industry more than a passing thought. But when Reveal sets out to expose the rampant racism and systemic discrimination built into the way staffing agencies place workers, the issue feels like the most pressing problem facing America. And in many ways it is, because the podcast traces the issue back, back, back to the Civil Rights Movement and the 1963 March on Washington, and argues that temp companies’ discriminatory practices is but a symptom of a much deeper rot.
Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins spun discs in postwar Cleveland from a record shop with glass windows, where people would gather on the street to watch him. Not only was he the town’s first black DJ, but he also managed to leave behind a mythology of cool that still affects the people who once listened to him on the radio. He left behind a son, too—William Allen Taylor—who never knew him. Hawkins has passed away and taken with him his stories and his voice—there are no remaining recordings of him—but his son goes on a quest to find him anyway. While Fugitive Waves often pulls from archival tape to build its stories, here Taylor must talk instead to those who remember his father to reconstruct his father’s radio voice. And somehow, he manages to do it. In “Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins,” you can imagine the starched suits and colorful ties and the smell of cologne of a lady’s man. There was just something about that voice.
On January 2, 2016, a group of armed men took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest the prison sentences of ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson on federal land. In “Absolutely, God Told Us to Do This,” host Scott Carrier goes to the frontline of the occupation—the snow-dusted scrubland of southeastern Oregon—to interview the men responsible for the takeover. According to several protesters, including Brand Thornton, God inspired their citizen takeover of government lands. If you’re looking to make sense of the standoff, you’re out of luck. Carrier doesn’t extract a coherent statement of purpose from Thornton. Instead Thornton loads up each response as if he’s draped in the American flag atop a white steed, simultaneously reading from the Constitution and scripture. However, just when the plainspoken, bat-shit-crazy testimony of a man supporting an armed insurrection teeters on the edge exploitation, Carrier steps in to offer his rebuttal. As always, Home of the Brave manages to give listeners unparalleled access to current events and a trusty shepherd in Scott Carrier.
Rolling Stone published Sean Penn’s “El Chapo Speaks” on January 9th, in which Penn discusses a private interview he had with the infamous Mexican drug lord. Some have called the article a circus, irresponsible, immoral, and blasphemous to journalism, watch-dogging and gatekeeping, not to mention criticizing the quality of the writing itself. Others have skirted the deeper issues by arguing that anyone would have taken the meeting if they felt they could do it safely and that its critics are just jealous—at least, that’s what Penn has been purporting. It’s hard to follow the many trains of thought in news outlets and sensational talking heads. Podcasts’ ability to dive deep is a much needed reprieve for complicated issues such as the one Penn poses. This week, podcast taskmaster On the Media’s first segment brilliantly shifts the focus to a Mexican journalist who articulates why his peers would have never wanted Penn’s interview and the unintended ripple effects the piece has had. What Hurts, another show that critiques mass media and helps listeners fine-tune their skepticism, injects a discussion of the ethical considerations that Penn may have overlooked through laser-sharp banter. Penn’s deep regret may be that his 10,000-word essay did not have its intended effect of mobilizing the masses to engage in the drug war, but the auxiliary net is still of great value to everyone else: recognizing that entertainment and news are not the same thing.
“Samara + Kelsey” is a love story, but it’s not dressed up as a fairy tale. Instead it tells the story of Samara, whose father is hospitalized, and Kelsey, the woman who helps her to cope. At the start of the episode, Samara ponders one of Barbra Streisand’s lyrics: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” She’s not sure she agrees. People who need people are exposed, desperate, and lonely. They can’t go it alone. Samara wants to go it alone, and it’s a challenge for her to surrender to her need for Kelsey, who patiently waits as Samara wrestles with her heart. It’s a beautiful episode that features The Heart‘s trademark soundscapes and layers, rich and evocative. At times it feels like you’re inside a movie and other times it feels more akin to a poem. At the end of the day, maybe Streisand was right that people who need people are the lucky ones—but so was Leonard Cohen, who wrote, “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”