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Black On Black Cinema takes on the news of its hometown Baltimore

In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends 10–15 of the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at podmass@avclub.com.

99% Invisible
Mystery House

One of the most notorious architectural oddities in history, the Winchester mansion is known for being built into a maze so its owner, the widowed heiress of the gun manufacturer, might avoid the vengeful spirits of those who died at the hands of Winchester rifles. Yet the more we learn of the widow Sarah Winchester, the more it’s clear that the madness-tinged version of the story might be exploitative—even a mockery of her humanity. 99% Invisible focuses on how the house of dead-end staircases actually lead to floors that collapsed in earthquakes, and the disorienting hallways may have served the complex function of feeding her hidden desire to become a professional architect. A deft real estate tycoon and brilliant investor, all signs suggest that she used her home as a way to experiment with architecture in a world that would not accept a woman into the field. The shocking lack of evidence that she was ever a superstitious person and was instead a bright recluse makes her all the more enigmatic, and a tragic figure in an entirely new way.

Making The Case

Over the past few years, as both the Executive and Legislative branches of American government have become increasingly paralyzed by gridlock and endless fundraising, more and more critical debate and action on public policy has played out in the Supreme Court. As HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver pointed out last season, the high court’s “no camera” policy has resulted in glib coverage from 24-hour cable news channels, most of whom are already too hesitant to wade into the sometimes tedious and always nuanced nitty-gritty of Constitutional law. For news buffs, it’s a pity; as Dahlia Lithwick’s superb podcast for Slate highlights, the court’s weekly-released audio can be riveting, enlightening stuff. Unlike the bland and rigid talking-points of their elected colleagues, the justices engage in crackling debate, quip zingers (who knew Ruth Bader Ginsburg was such a mic dropper?), and play devil’s advocate to their own ideologies. This week, Lithwick sits down with Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, one of the lawyers in last week’s landmark gay marriage Obergefell V. Hodges oral argument. The two hash out the strategies used in each of the two questions presented, as well as give a history lesson on the influential interracial marriage case, Loving V. Virginia.

Black On Black Cinema
Special: Baltimore In Chaos

Podcasts are, by and large, a safe medium, usually the bastion of comedy and pop culture fluff aimed at whisking listeners away with their lightness. So it is an interesting occurrence when a program of that milieu breaks from its normal format to bring an important inside take on a current event. This week’s episode of Black On Black Cinema comes direct from the frontlines of the unrest in Baltimore, the stomping grounds for the show’s hosts Jay Jacksonrao, Micah Payne, Rob Roberts, and Terrence Carpenter. The overriding feeling of the episode is one of a sense of resignation, as they all express that feelings of anger and a desire for retribution arise organically out of the situation. There is sadness, confusion, and anger; for the destruction of the city that the hosts clearly love, for the senselessness of the riots, and the coming cost that the city and its residents will have to pay. That the episode manages to maintain the show’s dynamic blend of humor, honest discussion, and pop culture references despite the pain of the topic is what makes this such an engaging listen. It is a sad fact of reality that the show should have to make such a detour, but listeners are better for having heard this episode.

Box Angeles
Dominic Dierkes

The various guests on Box Angeles have taken many different routes to success, from playing characters at Disney World to taking on jobs as casting assistants. Dominic Dierkes—currently a staff writer for Workaholics—seems to have one of the most laid-back approaches of all. To paraphrase The Joker, he just does things. That’s not to say he comes across as lazy or arrogant in his conversation with Mike Elder. His demeanor is more one of ease, conveying a viewpoint that it’s better to do what you love and go with your gut than to plan too much. It’s resulted in a fruitful—if not necessarily famous—career that’s seen him form the successful sketch group Derrick Comedy, appear on Mad Men and Weeds, and inspire someone to inexplicably post that he’s a Fulbright Scholar on his Wikipedia page (He’s not). Like most episodes of Box Angeles, it’s another unique take on the ins and outs of the entertainment industry—one that’s refreshingly devoid of any kind of self-aggrandizing mysticism.

Comedy Bang! Bang!
Cameron Esposito, Paul F. Tompkins, Matt Gourley

When comedian Cameron Esposito appeared on Comedy Bang! Bang! last fall, she and J.W. Stillwater (Paul F. Tompkins) formed an unlikely, but highly entertaining, familial bond. The pair have since been living together, pitching projects around Hollywood, and grappling with the revelation that Stillwater’s arch-nemesis, Professor Stillwater (or is it Stealwater?), is in fact the masked vigilante’s own father. This episode ramps up the drama when the villain (the great Matt Gourley) shows up to make amends with his estranged son—or is he up to something else? (Answer: Yes.) It’s the kind of hilarious episode listeners would expect from all the people involved, and the story looks like it will continue in a future episode.

The Dollop
Thomas Kinkade

Oftentimes the thrill found in listening to The Dollop comes out of learning a previously unknown piece of truly batshit American history, but there is also much joy to be found in hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds’ dissection of more recent tales backasswardry. This week’s is one that may be familiar to listeners of a certain age, as Anthony describes for the unwitting Reynolds the rocky path of Thomas Kinkade, the self-described “Painter Of Light” and general alcoholic mess. Kinkade turned his talent for painting into a completely insane business model, including a sort of art sweatshop. Kinkade was also the first artist for whom stocks were publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and whose influence was such that an entire planned community inspired by his work was built. All of this success came on the basis that Kinkade was an outwardly religious person, and that his works were able to tap into a certain market, peopled largely by Christians of questionable taste with disposable capital. This demographic is perhaps never better summed up as when Kinkade is referred to as the Larry The Cable Guy of the art world. It is ultimately a sad story, but the rotten means by which Kinkade lived leave the door wide open for The Dollop.

No Such Thing As A Fish
No Such Thing As Van Gogh The Elephant

Leading off this episode is a particularly ribald and strange fact about Germany’s last emperor: Kaiser Wilhelm II was obsessed with slapping people’s bottoms. Sure, this was a monarch with an extravagant mustache and a penchant for changing costumes four or five times a day, but in addition to his capes and epaulettes, Wilhelm patted or slapped the butts of nearly everyone he knew. He even created a secret society with a bum-slapping induction ceremony, and got awkwardly familiar with all of the European upper class, using both his hands and the flat of his sword, which cost his country major military contracts. This leads to a fantastic segment on exceedingly bizarre anal fixations in the royal world, down to the anal cavities of poodles, but the titular subject of elephants leads to the other standout segment. It would seem elephants cannot only recognize their appearance in a mirror as only a reflection, but they can pick off a dot placed on their foreheads the way a human would. The riffing the panel does is of course the true highlight, and paired with this odd history and science it is as delightful as ever.

The Soundtrack Series
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones: Matthew Trumbull

Actor, playwright, and performer Matthew Trumbull has a more direct connection to his song of choice than most of the guests on The Soundtrack Series: He might actually know one of the guys in it. That would be Jimmy Hutmaker, a batty denizen of Excelsior, Minnesota who’s supposedly name-dropped in the second verse of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I won’t spoil Trumbull’s sweet yet sad yarns about the colorful local, but I will say the whole thing is better if you decide Hutmaker is the real deal (even though he’s probably not), allowing the episode to become a Coen brothers-esque narrative about childhood trauma and small-town desperation. Oh, and don’t skip Dana Rossi’s intro, where she rails against replacement music on TV shows and thus gives the Netflix stream of The Wonder Years a much-deserved slap on the wrist.

Stuff You Should Know
How Spiders Work

Incredibly enigmatic when compared to thorax-dependent arthropods like “insects,” the arachnids known as spiders boast tens of thousands of species. Hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant celebrate everything from their evolution to develop a snake-like skin molting process to their place in mythology. This is also a podcast that obsesses over science, so listeners are given thorough information about things like web strength: The webs have a stronger tensile strength than steel, and in a bit of science-horror it’s explained that scientists are genetically combining spider and goat DNA to create a milk/silk substance that can be used in human organ replacement. Also, pound for pound, it is as flexible as rubber. If spiders are beginning to sound surprisingly useful, it would also seem that very few are venomous, which, given the depth of the research in this episode, might lead many skittish listeners to seek spiders out in the wild out of friendly curiosity. Lastly, Bryant quotes what seems like an impossible truism: “You’re never more than an arm’s length away from a spider,” but as his research about this highly adaptable apex predator unfurls, it seems he may actually be right.

Zach Woods

When Marc Maron first saw Zach Woods on the stage at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, he immediately connected with and was floored by what he was watching. This trip to the UCB serves as the launching point for Maron’s chat with Woods, which focuses largely on his history with improvisational comedy. Woods started taking classes at UCB when he was 16. Listening to him talk about how he’s most comfortable when he’s on stage performing, one gets the sense that he would have been happy if if he never made it further than the UCB stage. Woods, of course, has moved on to bigger stages with roles in In The Loop, The Office, and Silicon Valley. A discussion about Silicon Valley offers not only insights into how Woods developed the persona that makes his character Jared stand out, but also how the show comes together. Woods hasn’t received the same level of exposure that his Silicon Valley castmates have; for instance, he wasn’t featured on the great Silicon Valley episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! This week’s interview with Maron (as well as a great appearance on Conan) shows that this is beginning to change.

You Must Remember This
Star Wars Episode XVI: Van Johnson

The tale of wartime matinee idol Van Johnson, less well remembered today though a major Hollywood star in his day, provides the finale for You Must Remember This’ excellent season exploring Hollywood during World War II. As Johnson was gay, though never openly so, it also serves as a sad reminder of the travails faced by gay and lesbian actors in show business, struggles which have not entirely abated. As always with this show, what follows is a fascinating tale, and this time it includes multiple automobile accidents, Louis B. Mayer’s marriage-minded machinations, and countless levels of intrigue. After Johnson became a major movie star through hard work, determination, and luck, questions arose as to why he, an eminently eligible bachelor, was still unmarried. Under the studio system, stars’ public personae were actively groomed for mass appeal and MGM, initially inquisitive of Johnson’s sexual preferences, became set on arranging a marriage for the actor. The episode is filled with heartache, not just for Johnson but also for the ad hoc family that were used to support his dreams of stardom. It is another piece of forgotten Hollywood from host Karina Longworth that will have listeners eagerly awaiting the show’s next step.

We see what you said there

“People think that song is very symbolic, but really it’s just a list of things you see in Midtown/Downtown Memphis.”—Dominick Dierkes on Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis,” Box Angeles

“Also, Stan Lee really likes spiders so you’d think he’d know that about the Hulk’s pants.”—Josh Clark explaining that the process of spider molting clearly illustrates how the Hulk’s pants should get completely ripped off when he transforms, Stuff You Should Know