If you give Alice Isn’t Dead your undivided attention while driving long distances, its vision coalesces with your own: Must. Keep. Moving. It’s an ode to someone who hasn’t known home in a while. Part Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, part Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, Alice places an estranged lover in a big rig as she flees a monster and pursues her wife across a twisted, American heartland.
A 10-part fictionalized podcast series that launched this past week with “Omelet,” Alice arrives from one of the co-creators of Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink. It exists in a world alongside but completely independent of Fink’s prior work. For fans of Night Vale, you already tore through “Omelet” the second it hit your podcatcher. For everyone else, Alice might be the perfect time to jump onboard a new fictional series without the anxiety of staring down a massive back catalog.
Actor Jasika Nicole plays the unnamed lead in Alice. The quality of Nicole’s voice and the acting—listen to her magnificent performance from 7:00-7:40 for proof—make you forget you’re listening to make believe. You can’t overstate how incredible Alice sounds. It’s not just the acting either. Disparition, the same group that wrote the music for Night Vale, scores original tracks for Alice. The tailor-made sound delivers on multiple levels: it’s horror-show scary yet throbs with a forward momentum. Think Knight Rider meets “Lux Aeterna.”
In the opening scene, a grotesque man devours an omelet at a diner. The unnamed main character keeping tabs on him then weaves us into the larger narrative as she describes her quest for her long-lost wife Alice, once presumed dead but certainly alive now. The man shoveling the omelet in his mouth may have something to do with their separation. He’s also, by far, the most alive character in the story.
While Alice plays some of its mysteries close to the vest—what is the narrator’s name, what happened to Alice, and more importantly, who is the scene-stealing brute shadowing her?—it dispenses storyline more liberally than its spiritual and creative predecessor Night Vale. Never a podcast concerned with plot, Fink’s and writing partner Jeffrey Cranor’s Night Vale has racked up 100 million total downloads since launching in 2012—an astronomical figure if you’re counting YouTube streams of kitten videos, let alone podcast listens. Understanding the uniqueness of Night Vale helps explain how it gave rise to Alice.
Think about the landscape of podcasting in 2012. Despite the presence of The Truth (still then in its infancy) and an indie podcast like We’re Alive, fictional podcasting was the redheaded stepchild of a black sheep medium. Ask a few strangers back then to describe how they’d make their own podcast, and, if they didn’t roll their eyes, they’d likely sketch out an NPR-style audio documentary or a conversation recorded while hosts hashed out sports, fashion, politics, television, or Star Wars. It’s doubtful they’d storyboard anything resembling Welcome to Night Vale, a fictional, satirical podcast with unsettling music set in a desert town where people eek out an existence under a shadow regime. Yet Fink and Cranor looked at podcasting and thought such a narrative belonged.
They didn’t stop there, either. They sought great sound design and voice actors—does any podcast get more out of a performer than Welcome to Night Vale with Cecil Baldwin? The written source material for the episodes takes inspiration from plays, novels, and film and little from contemporary radio. For fans, the town of Night Vale exists on the same stage in our imaginations where we act out our favorite short stories. It is a real place, even if it is different for every listener. Night Vale plucked serialized fictional radio from obscurity and made it relevant again.
Alice continues Fink’s laudable obsession with Americana—his domain is the traveling circus: the oddities, the funnel cake, the Gravitron, and the hall of mirrors—but it is not as funny as Night Vale. The only other complaint is that Alice is too similar to Night Vale, yet such objections might be short-lived as the series progresses.
All this is to say that Alice distinguishes itself from Night Vale in exactly two ways. It gives its main character a clear goal—avoid the man tailing her and find Alice in 10 episodes!—and it relies less on the satirical barbs woven in with X-Files-inspired conspiracy theories. If Alice builds to a stirring conclusion, its creator will have achieved a seismic shift away from the Groundhog Day proceedings of Night Vale.