Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
The first fifty-three seconds of “Murder in the First” demand you listen further. It’s a grizzly introduction, but one that works brilliantly as a statement of purpose. More importantly, it maintains an urgency throughout the episode, delivering on its promise. Detective, a podcast that spotlights Lieutenant Joe Kenda and his two decades working homicide in Colorado Springs, debuted just this past week, and you should pay attention to it. In just under twenty minutes, it manages to tell two riveting stories of true-life crime. One recalls Kenda joining the force, getting promoted to plain clothes duty, and his first experience with a dead body. The second takes you step-by-step through solving a case. Again, this happens in roughly double the time it takes some podcast hosts to finish chattering and then run a sponsorship spot. This is gritty stuff too: bodies, needles, and something that should be pilfered for a noir novel called the “dead man’s fall.” Cast aside your dreams of another Serial for a moment, but consider the facts of the case: The creators of Detective have built a series that will run season by season and explore–most likely–numerous killings from the point of view of a detective. And we can say for certain that the protagonist of season one is well worth the download.
Consider us part of the crowd that knew nothing about Vine until we listened to this week’s episode of Internet Explorer with guest Caroline Moss. Having just recently published a profile of Vine star Logan Paul, Moss shares her fascinating experience of hanging with the stable of Vine stars that Paul lives with in Los Angeles. The episode plays out like an anthropological study of young males who can make tens-of-thousands of dollars per six-second Vine by being funny and spending a lot of time with their shirts off. Plus there’s all the young models and two-wheeled scooters that round out their entourage. Paul’s surreal life is perfectly captured for a podcast with Moss as the world-wise interloper. It’s wonderful to see a podcast having this much fun while reporting on the internet’s newest bounty: the Vine star.
Made in Sweden is a six-part series about a real life group of brothers turned bank robbers. The heists took place in Stockholm, using highly disciplined tactics to avoid detection. The brothers never carried the same weapons twice and set time limits for emptying vaults. They even used ruses to draw away police. The series up to this point has been enjoyable, but it riddled itself with a lot of throat clearing before the juicy details of the stickups. It’s definitely worth your time to check out the first two, but part three finds a more natural starting point for the drama. The scene that describes where the gang hid their stash of weapons belongs on the big screen–even Bond never proved to be this clever. These criminals blend coordination and logistics with frightening sophistication. The backstory of the brothers and their family hasn’t quite paid off yet, but there’s still plenty of time left in the series (MIS is running to support a fictional account of the events published by Anton Svensson). The bottom line is that “Dancing with the Bear” is a first rate crime story.
Launching a fictional series as popular as the big nonfiction mainstays has proved elusive for many creators, with a few notable exceptions. A big roadblock for podcast fiction has been the expositional-heavy conversations that plague a lot of its scripts. Characters spend a lot of time regurgitating plot points and logistical information, punishing the listener with stilted dialogue. Since podcasts don’t have a camera to rely on, the writing is hyper critical. Limetown diverts these stumbling blocks by crafting a documentary-style broadcast and allowing its protagonist and her interviewees to explain things to us in service of the 60 Minutes-style program. It concerns the disappearance of hundreds of citizens subjected to strange–and hereto unknown–experiments in a middle Tennessee research facility turned ghost town. Guiding us through the narrative is Lia Haddock, an investigative journalist determined to find out what happened to the strange colony and its slippery, mad scientist leader. Limetown isn’t the first podcast to use fiction in a compelling way–and it’s only released one episode–but let’s hope the attention it’s getting encourages a few imitators.
For all its carnage, “Crash and Burn” sure is a lot of fun. This week’s episode of Snap crams in three wild tales that may as well be pulled out of Grand Theft Auto. We have drug peddling rock climbers, coke-addled car thieves, and bipolar options traders running the floor at Lehman Brothers. Snap impresses with its deep–way deeper than most–roster of stories. When Glynn Washington’s crew is at their peak, it’s hard to find a more enjoyable hour of radio. This is like a double album with no filler. How often does that happen?
“Too Soon?” kicks off inauspiciously at some small-town Utah get together. Then things get messy. For all the stirring work This American Life has done in recent years, this week is a way-back machine to a time the series collected Americana on tape–the weird, the indefinable–and made it resonate. Consider the middle act, Harmon Leon’s memories of working on a 2006 reality show called Juiced, starring a celebrity you may not be ready to hear about in a comedic role. The series ripped off Punk’d, only the laughs never came and the star of the show made things weird and then somehow weirder. TAL might be at the apex of its powers right now, and that’s saying something considering its deep catalogue. And with all the ambitious moves Ira Glass has made–going independent, launching Serial–it’s clear he’s not just here to flex his A-list radio credentials and turn on autopilot. This is still can’t-miss listening twenty years after its small beginnings in Chicago.
Jonathan Hirsch’s podcast ARRVLS produces audio that finds people at a crossroads. His guest this week is Marlo Mack, who you might know from the podcast How to Be a Girl, a series about Mack raising her transgender daughter. Mack came to an intersection when her child came to her to reject her then gender identity as a boy. At the age of two, her daughter knew who she was. While some of the stuff here is heartbreaking–knowing that Mack’s daughter may very well face ridicule in school for example–it’s buoyed by the superhuman resolve of her young child. The tension here is hyperrealistic. You listen to how Mack comes to grip with having to re-identify with her child. Mack is open minded, but she struggles to let go. “Mama, I’m a Girl” is a brilliant primer to Mack’s podcast, but it works equally as well as a self-contained listen and within Hirsch’s catalogue.
The star of this week’s Reply All is standup Barry Crimmins. If you don’t know his name, he probably wouldn’t blame you, but lots of his peers in comedy think very highly of him, and with good reason. “One Strike” reveals how Crimmins never used autobiography in his act until he finally admitted to being sexually abused as a boy one night–in front of a shocked-into-silence crowd. And that admission let to important activism. In the 90s, the comedian discovered pedophiles operating freely in the AOL community, and he took notice. And then he fought like hell. The best thing about Crimmins is that he doesn’t passively involve himself in anything–you can hear it in his voice. Also back this time is the Craigslist segment that Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt introduced a several weeks ago. It’s refreshing to see them working so hard to fine-tune their podcast. Reply All doesn’t just put out new episodes. It evolves.
The Memory Palace: “Notes on an Imagined Plaque to be Added to the Statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing that the Memphis City Counci has Voted to Move it and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and his Wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their Current Location in a Park Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood Cemetery”
One half of the editors of The Timbre live in Memphis, Tennessee. In that city–just around the point where downtown turns to midtown a few miles east of the Mississippi River–there is a bronze statue of the decorated Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, mounted regally atop a horse. Just recently, after months of social media frenzy over deplorable, nationwide police brutality, the city council voted unanimously to move the monument, one that summons back centuries of American white supremacy. After hearing this news, Memory Palace creator and host, Nate DiMeo, released a podcast suggesting a plaque be put up with Forrest’s statue at its new location, one that caveats his military genius with his more heinous acts of murder and slave owning. DiMeo does a masterful job of taking big moments of history and breathing an enormous amount of clarity into them in podcasts that rarely surpass 15 minutes. In his hands, listeners can wrap their arms around subjects we skimmed in history class.