Best Podcasts: December 7-13

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

BEST IN SHOW

Serial: “DUSTWUN”

‘DUSTWUN’ centers on the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the sergeant who walked off his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban, imprisoned for five years, and then released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. According to him, the decision was a calculated one to bring attention to what he viewed as gross misconduct among his superiors. It was, to his mind, an act of heroism. If you believe his versions of events, Bergdahl is pretty much John Snow come to life, willing to lay himself down to save his brothers. But Koenig reminds us to be skeptical, emphasizing that Bergdahl had five years to get his story straight.”

Read our review of “DUSTWUN” here.

Home of the Brave: “On the Isle of Lesbos”

In “On the Isle of Lesbos,” Home of the Brave drops us onto a Greek island where scores of people, loaded up on rubber rafts, regularly come ashore. These are men and women who have crossed the narrow channel that divides Greece and Turkey after fleeing their homes in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. To the rest of the world, they bear one name: refugees. They are the subject of debate, of scrutiny, and of fear. But of course they cannot be reduced to this simple label, as each of them has a story. There is the interpreter who worked for the U.S. Marines and fled the Taliban, and who dreams of one day teaching English. There is the Afghani couple who were forbidden to marry, so they left with the clothes on their backs–and each other. There is the pregnant woman whose life was threatened after she tried to help other women find work. Producers Scott Carrier and Camilla Madsen don’t try to manipulate these stories into a cohesive narrative. They just let each story stand alone, and they shimmer with an elegant simplicity, the same way the profiles of Humans of New York tap into our deepest empathy, our shared humanity. There are moments of “On the Isle of Lesbos” when you may laugh out loud or you might choke back a sob, but each will take you by surprise, the way that people can, if you let them.


RUNNERS UP

99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates”

In the movie Chinatown, Jack Nicholson plays a detective caught up investigating a murky syndicate of criminals and misfits he can never hope to understand. In Robert Towne’s screenplay, Chinatown was a stand-in for the unknowable and the unthinkable: shorthand for hazy opium dens and shady underground characters. The Americanized vision of Chinatown we see in the 1970s classic, as it turns out, emerges from the early 20th century San Francisco depicted in “Pagodas and Dragon Gates.” During the era of the famous earthquake, the government forced Chinese immigrants to occupy a small corner of the city by enacting a racist law that prohibited them from living elsewhere. Then a pivotal disaster in San Francisco changed the fabric of the neighborhood. After a 7.8 earthquake, fires ravaged the city, and the people living in Chinatown, like much of the city, had to rebuild. Leave it to 99% Invisible to take a critical moment in history and find a richer narrative, one that explains exactly why Chinatown was built and stereotyped and made into an icon the way that it was. It’s a story rooted in Chinese and American history that tells a version of Chinatown that is far more elegant than the myth.

Death, Sex & Money: “Autism Isn’t What I Signed Up For”

When a couple pairs off to have children, they usually sacrifice social lives for the intimacy of family. It’s a bargain most of us understand, even if we’re not willing to pursue it. However, in this week’s episode of Death, Sex & Money, a woman named Diane Gill Morris discusses what it’s like to have children who don’t live up to the expectations at the heart of that sacrifice. Her kids are autistic, and consequently aren’t the types who shower their parents with hugs. One of her boys rages and lashes out at anyone in reach—her, another child—and communication is strained with both siblings. Into this muck steps Anna Sale, someone who manages to pinpoint Morris’ struggles and do all but walk her up to the most difficult question: Is this worth it? Even though we trust Anna Sale will always get to the painful truth of her subject, it’s still remarkable to listen to a show that goes to a place that most of us wouldn’t approach, even with our closest friends.


HONORABLE MENTION

Criminal: “It Looked Like Fire”

In August of 2014, Robert Cohen, on assignment for the St. Louis Dispatch, snapped a photograph of Ed Crawford heaving a tear gas canister back at police during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri. Crawford had travelled there after the Michael Brown shooting, compelled by his interest in the demonstration, and ended up on a collision course with police, with that canister, and with Cohen. The photograph Cohen took became an emblem of the protest–the victimization of blacks and the rising up against police–appearing on t-shirts and winning awards. It also provided definitive proof that Crawford did indeed toss a canister at police officers, earning him a charge of assault against an officer. “It Looked Like Fire” chronicles the meeting of these two men and how fate intervenes in ways both magical and unfortunate. Criminal eludes definition episode to episode by varying the makeup of the crimes and their perpetrators. True crime carries a pulp reputation, but Pheobe Judge and Lauren Spohrer stir up more than just grisly stories. This week they’ve discovered something that could be political at first glance but instead carries its heart on its sleeve.

Here Be Monsters: “CALL 601-2-SATAN”

The trigger warning producer Jeff Emtman provides at the start of his latest episode perfectly embodies the show itself. He says, “This episode contains foul language and blasphemy. Enjoy the show.” There is no coordinating conjunction between the two sentences. He doesn’t say, “This episode contains foul language and blasphemy, but enjoy the show.” He also doesn’t say, “This episode contains foul language and blasphemy, so enjoy the show.” The reason why this matters is because he and this episode’s producer, Bethany Denton, very wisely choose when they want listeners to know what they’re thinking, and usually they’re content to leave us to make up our own minds about the subjects of their show. “CALL 601-2-SATAN” is comprised of a series of voicemail messages left to a prayer hotline–for Satanists. Most of them play like perfunctory requests left for Nancy in HR. A guy wants help apprehending the criminals who robbed his apartment; a woman’s work isn’t going well and she is looking for assistance in lifting a hex; another guy is hoping for prayers to inspire his music career. If each message didn’t end with “Hail Satan,” it could even be easy to confuse the majority of them with run-of-the-mill prayer requests from everyday Christians. That might be the point Denton was trying to make: isn’t religion so arbitrary? Or maybe she was trying to point a light at a frightening subculture. It’s really impossible to tell. The lack of guidance isn’t a cheat either–it’s trust in its listeners. We decide on but or so.

Only Human: “Let’s Talk About Death”

Sermonizing about death comes with the territory for any preacher, but for Bishop Gwendolyn Phillips Coates, it’s more personal and cultural than occupational. Religious rhetoric impresses the afterlife—heaven and hell—on its followers but says little about managing the fussy details like hospice care and drafting wills. And in black congregations, a trip to the doctor isn’t as cut and dry as it is white communities. Centuries of mistrust between blacks and the healthcare system have created bogeymen, real and imagined, out of medical facilities. Coates designs to change all that because she lost the love of her life at an age when all she had were visions of their long life together. “Let’s Talk About Death” discusses the trouble with planning for certain death when we’d much rather believe we’re the exception.

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Author Description

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

  • Terry McNay

    I would like to see “The best Podcasts of 2015” on the Timbre website.

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