Women who cook dumplings, climb mountains, and worship Xena, in this week’s Podmass

Arlene Blum (right) in the Himalayas (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Arlene Blum (right) in the Himalayas (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

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

Call Chelsea Peretti
Rain’s Comin’ In

In the latest Call Chelsea Peretti, fans are gifted with a live reading of her new play, Rain’s Comin’ In. Performed by a stellar cast of Peretti, John Early, Kate Berlant, Xosha Roquemore, Emily Spivey, Esther Povitsky, Yassir Lester, and Moshe Kasher and narration by Dave King, the play is a “rural family drama” and a hilarious emulation of 20th-century American theater. The reading only begins after Peretti thanks numerous “organizations” for their support, boasting a “PBS True American Visionary grant,” a “Scientology Celebrity Advancement grant,” and even a Yale School Of Drama honorary degree. Packed with Tennessee Williams-esque tropes, the script knows exactly what it’s parodying and winks at the audience throughout. With the presence of ghosts, excessive talk about the weather, and absurd twists and turns, this theatrical style is the perfect filter for Peretti’s comedy. The cast’s commitment to character is unwavering, everyone getting their own long-winded, secret-revealing speech. John Early particularly shines as Cooper, relishing in the drama of it all. Following the play’s shocking conclusion is a Q&A, where there’s discussion of its symbolism, casting, and inspiration—but not before Peretti asks the audience which parts made them cry.

First Day Back

With this second-season premiere, host and producer Tally Abecassis pulls off one of the most interesting acts of about-face in recent podcasting memory. Her show’s first season was focused on Abecassis’ attempts to return to her working life years after having children, while this one is predicated on returning to one’s life after having committed a murder. What can be happily reported is that the show is successful in this shift right out of the gate, due in part to the truly mesmerizing and curious nature of the murder at the center of this season’s exploration. It concerns a Canadian woman, Lucie, who shot and killed her husband, Gerry, but who has no recollection of ever committing the crime. Many thorny questions arise from simply choosing to report on this story, such as whether it’s fair to profile the rehabilitation of a murderer from a sympathetic angle, and hopefully the show will address them as the season progresses. First Day Back is buoyed by the uniqueness of Lucie’s personality: chipper, warm, humorous, and puzzlingly bereft of any cognizance of her own murderous actions.

The Back Nine (Jim & Jeanne)

To state that love is complicated is a far way off from profundity. But it’s a reality that we all deal with on a regular basis, whether we’re in a relationship, out of a relationship, or somewhere in that immense gray area in between. Honey is a podcast that looks straight on at the complexities of romantic coupling (or uncoupling) and attempts to figure out why some people can make it work and others can’t. Each week, actor-writer Julia Meltzer sits down with a different pair of flawed human beings who have lashed themselves fast to one another and are trying not to be pulled apart by the storms of life. They recount their high and low points, the moments that made them want to keep trying and the ones that nearly did them in. Finally, the host flat-out asks them, “Why did you never get divorced?” It’s never an easy question to answer. In this episode, Meltzer picks the brains of a very sweet couple of 45 years who have survived incidents of drunken window punching and thrown knives. Believe it or not, it’s a genuinely uplifting hour of media.

Like Two Ken Dolls Being Smashed Together

Kathy Tu and Tobin Low start off the second episode of Nancy with music from Xena: The Warrior Princess, a fitting tribute to Tu’s youthful appreciation of Xena as a strong female role model and queer icon. Tobin, meanwhile, takes this episode to explore the career of Asian American gay porn star Brandon Lee. With contributions from porn producer Chi Chi LaRue and a cultural studies expert, and interview clips from Lee himself, Tobin unpacks the tricky issues of race in gay porn, especially the problematic portrayal of Asian men as submissive and stereotypically accented. Despite this, Lee somehow bucked the trend as a well-endowed top—yet while his career was a refreshing change of pace, it was still complicit in perpetuating these problematic portrayals. Rounding out the episode, Tu presents the story of Chicagoan Sarah Lu as she reconnects with Maura, a woman from her childhood. Maura featured centrally in Lu’s personal “ring of keys” moment—a reference to the musical Fun Home, wherein a young lesbian encounters an older woman in whom she recognizes facets of her identity and sexuality for the first time.

XX Factor: A Woman’s Place Is On Top

The nature mag’s podcast arm is embarking on a new series highlighting the achievements of female outdoors adventurers. Its second installment focuses on the 1978 women’s expedition to the top of the world’s 10th-tallest mountain, Annapurna, led by Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist who declined admission to Harvard when she learned women weren’t allowed on the school climbing club. By 1978, Blum had a string of climbing-related firsts under her belt and caught the attention of a documentary crew, which accompanied her team on their history-making Annapurna attempt and provides period audio clips for the podcast alongside present-day commentary from Blum herself. The sum of the vignettes reveals the climb—paid for by selling T-shirts reading “A Woman’s Place Is On Top”—as an extension of the accelerating women’s rights movement, a march to break the 8,000-meter ceiling. And while two members of Blum’s team were able to reach the summit, subsequent tragedies on the expedition cast a pall over its legacy.

Pregnant Pause
The Central Sadness

To procreate or not to procreate? That is the question behind Pregnant Pause, a husband-and-wife-hosted podcast that lays out the arguments for and against having children as they both wrestle with the decision to become parents themselves. Shira, the wife, is staunchly pro-baby, believing them to be ready for the next stage of their relationship. Her husband, Zak, is hesitant, worried about things like fatherhood, teenage angst, and climate change. In this episode, they speak with writer Meghan Daum, who recounts her decision to remain child-free (a term she dislikes) after marrying late and having a miscarriage at age 41. The choice led to omnipresent feelings of hurt she terms “the central sadness.” The sadness, Daum says, cropped up in her life around the child question, but she believes it’s closer to a general symptom of aging, part of the melancholy catalog of regrets everyone of a certain age is prone to wade in—and although they are often distracted by the demanding enterprise of child-raising, Daum points out parents have this, too.

Serious Eat’s Special Sauce
Dumpling Master Helen You’s Inspiring Story

It’s easy to dismiss certain prominent chefs (especially those with fancy-schmancy hardcover cookbooks) as the benefactors of a generous sprinkling of privilege that afforded singular opportunities to indulge a passion for fine food. Not so with Helen You. As the owner of the highly regarded Dumpling Galaxy restaurant in Queens tells host Ed Levine, You’s life is the product of a challenging upbringing. Born in China, her father was imprisoned for 22 years after writing an essay critical of the government. Branded by the community as being from a bad family, young Helen had no friends at school and spent her childhood in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. It was there she developed an interest in food and still vividly recalls delivering her first dumplings to her father during rare visitations. At 21, she immigrated alone to America, having taught herself passable English. She obtained a degree in accounting, only to grow bored with the field after many years. On the advice of her children, she opened a small dumpling stall serving just three pork-based varieties, which blossomed into a full-service restaurant featuring fillings like chocolate or octopus and chives.

Talk Easy

In an undeniably special 50th episode, Sam Fragoso interviews his mom. Talk Easy has always been grounded by a commitment to emotional honesty from its host: It facilitates a level of trust with guests, leading to very personal and memorable discussions. Fragoso has mentioned his mom on the show before, so to invite her on this landmark episode is an elegant full-circle moment. She is wonderfully funny and self-assured as she shares stories of her childhood, being bullied, motherhood, and her thoughts on death. It’s a testament to their bond that Fragoso is willing to dig deep to pull more out of her, and she grants him that vulnerability. There’s a level of respect linking them as their conversation brings about laughter and tears, both of which have the singular authenticity of intimate moments between a mother and son. It’s a beautiful portrait of their relationship, capturing the spirit of mutual love and understanding, and it’s one of those pieces of podcasting that a listener feels truly privileged to have been able to experience.

The Bernie Sanders Show
Jane Mayer

The Bernie Sanders Show is a lot like Bernie Sanders the person. It’s no-nonsense, straight to the point, and a little rough around the edges, but in an utterly charming way. Each episode of the podcast—a simple audio rip of Sanders’ newly launched Facebook Live chat show—finds Sanders seated alongside an expert guest, whom he interviews about topics of great importance to both him and his multitudinous supporters. The low-rent production value is on-brand for Sanders, and really, this is a selling point. The U.S. senator from Vermont made his name last year with an unvarnished, non-focus-grouped take on what’s dragging down the country. This week’s half-hour conversation with Jane Mayer, investigative reporter for The New Yorker, is packed full with that. With very few pleasantries and even less repartee, the two serious thinkers outline how dark money has poisoned our democratic institution and the degree to which billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch can claim personal responsibility.