Best Podcasts: February 29, 2016

Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.

BEST IN SHOW

ARRVLS: “Movements”

Host/producer Jonathan Hirsch and producer Sara Brooke Curtis crisscross their cross-country relocations in this exemplary episode of ARRVLS. Hirsch left Brooklyn for LA; Curtis, San Francisco for the northeast—perhaps Beacon, where the first of several scenes comes to life by way of birdsong. So often shows under the Personal Journals category stitch together recorded thoughts in different times and spaces, but ARRVLS does one better. In place of shaky voices wondering what an uprooted life might bring, the producers capture audio of their new environments—street and train sounds, footsteps, a saxophone—with an overlay of tightly written observations of what’s catching their eyes. Through the interwoven stories of “Movements,” Hirsch and Curtis capitalize on the precious, hyper-aware headspace that follows major life changes, and they do so through the use of scene—not monologue. The writing brings crystalline imagery packaged with wonderful flourishes of language. Their observations draw us out of our own worlds and into theirs, and because they never directly confront their feelings, the listener has space for his or her own reactions to the reel—a balance struck when art is at its absolute best. At the top of the hour, Hirsch suggests going for a walk to this episode, and we wholeheartedly second his advice—but we’d add to bring a mic or a pen along with you. “Movements” is nothing short of inspiring.

Radiolab: “K-poparazzi”

It’s hard to imagine stadiums filled with 40,000 people cheering for bands you’ve never heard of or that there are websites housing 57,000-plus playlists for a genre of music you don’t know exists. But this week’s Radiolab uncovers the world of Kpop, the boy-and-girl-band pop groups out of South Korea—and the sheer fact of Kpop is only one note in this novelty act. At first blush, the premise might sound familiar—after all, the United States has a long history with pop fandom. But Korean culture holds everyone to a stricter code of discipline, deference, integrity, and unity, one that Americans can’t stomach or fathom. Pop stars are isolated from the opposite sex, they are isolated from society, too, being led on early morning hikes and then fed mostly lettuce, and they not only project a fantasy, but they live as fantasy objects. The fans are hyper-organized, they act as one unit at mega arena shows. And if stars break the fantasy, there are consequences. Such was the case for Girls Generation, a group that had to perform to a silent crowd after some of its members flirted with a boy band during a public appearance—a big no-no to their fans. In tandem to the silent protest, a third arm of Kpop was born—the paparazzi. But “K-poparazzi” doesn’t just observe cultural differences or how the Kpop scene has a similar evolution as America’s. It also asks listeners to live in an uncomfortable space between feeling resolved about American pop culture having already crossed all the lines of privacy and sanity, to feeling like Americans might be the butt of a joke we can never get out from underneath.

Reply All: “Zardulu”

Like with the best episodes of Reply All, the less you know going in to “Zardulu,” the better. It begins with a discussion about Pizza Rat, the intrepid rodent that became a viral video sensation last fall. But it quickly transforms into something else entirely, something that vacillates between trivial and profound, comedic and philosophical. It’s a story that combines a mysterious cloaked figure, conspiracy theories, a suit of possibly human hair, theories about myth making, viral video hoaxes, and an army of well-trained rats. And it ends with the proposition that the world is filled with more wonder and magic than we’re able or willing to acknowledge. That the story is successful in hitting these finer points is a testament to the show’s ability to seduce us down increasingly bizarre rabbit holes without ever becoming either self-indulgent or overly serious. But it’s also a reminder of the power of the podcast format. “Zardulu” is a piece of reporting that simply couldn’t exist in the public radio sphere, by virtue of the fact that it’s too weird, too complicated, mostly unsubstantiated, and maybe not even important. Even so, it deserves our time. If a rat battling a flight of stairs for a slice of pizza is the ultimate symbol of the New York City grind, than it’s equally as important to explore the idea that a someone is, perhaps, pulling our leg in order to create such a symbol. And her Twitter account is pretty badass, too. . .

RUNNERS UP

Sound Africa: “The Wait is Almost Over Part 1”

Despite its size, population, and cradle-of-civilization history, Africa shrinks next to other continents when it comes to global entrée. Sound Africa, entering the podcastsphere as a way to give voice to Africans, promises nothing more and nothing less than fascinating stories from its homeland. “The Wait is Almost Over Part 1” also mentions a disturbing fact that has nothing and everything to do with the premise of Sound Africa: when it comes to the deplorable business of ransoming human beings, South Africans have little value to kidnappers when compared to Americans. This week’s episode’s elements are so powerful—civil war, terrorism, and the global politics of kidnapping—the show doesn’t need any bells and whistles beyond its well-told story. “The Wait is Almost Over Part 1” tracks the emigration of Pierre and Yolande Korkie, a couple who left South Africa and settled in Yemen years before the revolution. The simplicity of life and beauty in Yemen completely won them over. Just as the Korkies sensed a revolution bubbling up from within their adopted country, a group of kidnappers snatched them off the street and whisked them off to a group of al-Qaeda captors. With all the ways podcasting might evolve, straightforward narrative will always captivate us, especially when its characters and conflict are rooted in ear-to-the-ground reporting.

Hidden Brain: “Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant”

In “Stroke of Genius,” Hidden Brain finds a preposterous story and asks host Shankar Vedantam to explain its incomprehensibility. The conflict between genius as illusional and genius as innate—a topic Malcolm Gladwell practically cornered the market on—takes center stage. The episode follows Derek Amato, a man who unwittingly dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool, smacked his head on the bottom, and left with a severe concussion. When he recovered and then walked out of the hospital and into a friend’s house, he discovered he had the ability to play the piano, an instrument on which he had never practiced. After his accident, he’s not just any pianist, either. He scores orchestral quality pieces on demand. His only explanation for his talents is massive head trauma. Vedantam interviews Amato and then pushes back midway through the episode to express doubt. The show taps into a dynamic that could serve it well going forward: inserting Vedantam’s skepticism into a story that resists logic. While seated at a piano, Amato brushes off Vedantam’s objections to the story of the sudden savant—the condition attributed to Amato—with a few elegant keystrokes.

Strangers “Elizabeth and Mary, Part 3”

“Elizabeth and Mary, Part 3” packs a dense wow factor into one episode, with host and producer Lea Thau witnessing a kidney transplant firsthand. A huge draw for listening comes from the desire to eavesdrop on such a surgery, yet Thau possesses a hyper-evolved emotional intelligence that processes even the smallest of moments—and this is a huge one—into personal manifestos aimed right at your heart. Thau’s April 2014 Strangers’ episode “Cora Leighton: The Gift,” in which a kidney donation takes place, inspired a listener named Elizabeth to step forward and donate one of her own to a then stranger named Mary. In the first two parts of the series, we’re introduced to Elizabeth and Mary and how they found each other, and we dive deep into why Elizabeth wanted to donate in the first place: Elizabeth is a woman with sticky notes on the wall denoting her bucket list. Driving a demolition vehicle? Check. Donating something more important than blood? Check, check. In the third installment, Elizabeth does just that. Thau ends up in the room because she deduces that if Elizabeth can donate a kidney, the least she can do is witness it. Toward the end of the show, the premise of “Elizabeth and Mary” reaches the apex of its moral questioning, too: are some people better than other people? The teaser for the fourth part suggests we’ll mull that one over with listeners in the Strangers’ Facebook community—including whether or not Thau is going to volunteer an organ herself.

HONORABLE MENTION

The Heart: “Alex”

“Alex” fulfills the promise of The Heart—deeply affecting testimonies on the body, love, and sex—while turning over the reins to a guest production team with a few alterations in mind. For starters, it’s fictional—an interesting departure from The Heart’s usual first-person confessional. The show has always scoffed at prudes in a sex-positive, vocal way, but this week’s episode has a quieter agenda, with a dreamlike quality to it. It features remarkable soundscapes that achieve the effect of time travel, seamlessly fading in and out of the memory of its main character, Carter. His story recreates the entire cycle of falling in love: the pre-romance innocence, the moment when you know it’s happening, the end, and the final, wistful longing for what once was. It shares the pre-sex, post-sex, and mid-cuddle moments we don’t show anyone we don’t love or lust for. “Alex” should be a touchstone for others looking to blend sound and make believe to great effect.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sacha Baron Cohen”

Sacha Baron Cohen tends to make appearances as anyone but himself. He walks red carpets, conducts interviews, presents Oscars, and, we learn, even gets arrested in full character. And though he happily slips in and out of the voices of Bruno, Ali G, Borat, and The Dictator during this interview, Marc Maron is most definitely interviewing Baron Cohen. Fans of his work, or people who simply don’t get his work, or even one-offs who love artists like Andy Kaufman, will appreciate hearing Baron Cohen fully excavate his approach to making comedy. It’s probably unsurprising that the man who breaks all the rules was classically trained and has a strong point of view about how he wants his work to penetrate the cultural consciousness. But the interview takes plenty of unexpected turns, too, providing behind-the-scenes intel about how and why Baron Cohen pulls off the spectacular feats we see in his movies and Da Ali G Show, even how Louis C.K. helped inspire one of his most dangerous stunts to date. Listening to Maron and Baron Cohen dissect comedy and culture adds a layer to the genre that even diehard fans of either WTF or Baron Cohen won’t see coming. And it leaves listeners with plenty to Google about buffoonery and clowning.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining Wonder Woman”

For his first podcast after joining Slate’s Panoply network, host Eric Molinsky puzzles over the origin story of Wonder Woman and discovers her slow-burning rise to the big screen—she debuts in Batman v Superman this year—charts a history of feminism and gender politics far more interesting than her surface-level sketches. When at its best, Imaginary Worlds finds the multitudes layered behind its subjects—profound meanings packed into fictional universes. Like any good documentary, “Imagining Wonder Woman” starts at the beginning, where Wonder Woman sprang from the imagination of Elizabeth and William Marston and the nearly forgotten realms of utopian feminist literature, but allows itself to follow the unexpected details of the story as it unfolds. While Wonder Woman’s lack of an archetypal predecessor makes her an original, it also prevents her from owning an identity that her male counterparts earned by tapping into existing mythologies and story arcs. Instead, she played the damsel in distress on the covers of comic books time and again. Molinksy interviews a handful of experts, including a Wonder Woman biographer and a Wonder Woman comic book artist who helped reimagine her in 2011, to unravel a story of gender misrepresentation, inspiration, and evolution. “Imagining Wonder Woman” follows the rules of the scientific method: it doesn’t let a hypothesis—Wonder Woman as the paragon of feminist superherodom—dictate its conclusions.

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Author Description

The Timbre brings thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis to podcasts and the larger culture of podcasting.

  • Jordan Adedeji

    Was it just me or did anyone else find Radiolabs “K-poparazzi” episode spooky? lol

    • Sanya Kushak

      Was not just you.

  • Sanya Kushak

    The Seriously Podcast, Episode “Choose Life” was pretty freaking good… The real people behind the film Trainspotting.

    • Eric McQuade

      I hear ya. “Choose Life” had the goods and definitely gave me pause last week. Only slightly related: I love the movie Shallow Grave too. It’s Danny Boyle and McGregor a couple years before Trainspotting.

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