Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Following host Glynn Washington’s trademark introduction, Snap Judgment features two segments this week that crisscross Asia to the New World. “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” places the listener first in Iran, where the author Marina Nemat, a Christian woman raised in the pre-revolution days, falls victim to the new regime just after the Ayatollah seizes power. Her story twists in unexpected ways, and it’s a perfect example of a podcast excelling at its own game: airtight narrative. Snap turns over the final third of the episode to Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, who breathes humor and drama into the piece about making contact with his new kid sister. The crimes perpetrated in the episode play together like a bittersweet mixtape, and they’re filled with gripping dramas that emerge from human foibles.
A cottage industry exists to influence how we spend every moment of our lives. “Work is a Four Letter Word” addresses the never-ending disharmony of employment and leisure. We burden ourselves with jobs to get ahead while craving free time. Moneymaking robs us of the time we need for creative projects. Unemployment dehumanizes people. Professor Andrew Hussey shepherds us through all the travails and joys of work, including an extended stay in France, a culture that’s mastered the art of pleasure. The only guiding principle of work is that we’re forever fighting an imbalance between what we want to do and what we have to do to pay off landlords, Netflix, and student loans. This week’s episode of Seriously… succeeds by meditating on the ambivalence, rather than offering snake-oil remedies.
Zorthian Ranch is a sprawling, meandering collection of found art and ramshackle buildings formed out of driftwood and the corpses of automobiles scattered across acres in the foothills of Altadena. It was artist Jirayr Zorthian’s magnum opus. Built more than 70 years ago, he and a handful of other bohemian types lived on the ranch and threw legendary parties—ones where people like Charlie Parker and Andy Warhol might run into each other, and one of them just might be naked. Today the ranch is in the hands of Jirayr’s son, Alan, and Alan’s daughter, Caroline, who tend to the property, as well as its many human and animal guests. Theirs is a strange existence, as their actual jobs are not clear, nor is the role of Zorthian Ranch. This doesn’t much concern them, however, as being a Zorthian means not answering these questions. What permeates this unusual profile is a sense that this place—and these people—are special.
When Song Exploder succeeds, it does so because producer Hrishikesh Hirway finds both a great song and a backstory that enriches the music. The power of the premise is on full display here as Grammy-winner Courtney Barnett breaks down the story behind her song, “Despreston.” At first blush, the song, which is expositional and narrative in nature, might not seem worthy of the Song Exploder treatment. However, with an artist like Barnett, who brings a short story writer’s sensibility to mundane, everyday occurrences, the plainspoken lyrics take on a new depth. We hear not only about a bungalow in Preston, California, but what moved Barnett about the house enough to write the lyrics. This is a song about the lives we build inside buildings indifferent to our existence, on soil that can be scraped cleaned and reimagined in another’s image.
The first person in Connecticut to face capital punishment since 1960 will likely be the state’s last. The death-row inmate in question, Michael Ross, raped and murdered many women in a methodical way—he liked to walk behind his victims for awhile, he liked to feel their fear. But journalist Martha Elliot didn’t want her state to send anyone to the electric chair, regardless of the crime. In an effort to write about Ross’s case and its consequences, she discovered that dying was what Ross wanted; more digging revealed that Ross likely wanted to get caught, too. And through the interview process, and his lengthy prison stay before he met his end, the two became friends. She couldn’t tell if the man Ross became after he was locked up was just a mask to continue his narcissistic disregard for humanity or because his psychopathic impulses were truly sated behind bars. “The Stay” won’t resolve anything for listeners to that end, but it does offer confirmation that a neat package of a story isn’t what keeps us at the ready for tales of true crime.
In “The Cost of Crossing,” Planet Money pushes north from Mexico, across the Rio Grande, into the United States. The story focuses on a Honduran woman—named Patty here—whose journey from home places her in the hands of men who make tens of thousands of dollars in human trafficking, and business is thriving. The episode resonates because it stays close to Patty, and we’re allowed to see how an enormous issue like immigration affects one relatable person. Along the way to understanding this unfortunate trade, Planet Money catches up with a Mexican smuggler over drinks and a quesadilla. It takes you step-by-step through the economy of buying and selling people in Latin America. When you finish, you’ll be shocked at how familiar the whole thing is: once a market emerges, even the commoditization of human beings is fair game.
Though most episodes of Precious Lives hardly crack the ten-minute mark, you can’t find many shows with as grand of ambitions. Told in bite-sized stories, the podcast endeavors to chronicle the lives of young people impacted by gun violence in Milwaukee. This week we hear about 13-year-old Giovonnie Cameron, who was accidentally killed by a gun his cousin found in the park. Naturally his mother is devastated, but what is especially notable about the interview with her is how she processes her grief. You can hear her in real time dwelling on any mistakes she might have made, pushing herself to forgive, and trying to find a way to still be a mother to the son she lost and the children under her roof. Though gun control is a polarizing issue among Americans, the podcast doesn’t politicize it here. Instead we simply meet a parent and hear her story. And it doesn’t get much realer than this.