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Dirty John swerves away from true-crime tropes to unspool its chilling tale

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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.

A Podmass series spotlight
Dirty John


There are douches and there are scumbags and then there’s Dirty John Meehan. The eponymous greaseball of Wondery’s hit six-episode true-crime series is remarkably devoid of any redeeming qualities as he meanders through a lifetime of crime and manipulation, nursing both drug addiction and relentless grudges against anyone who dares defy his base desires. He’s so evil, in fact, that over the course of the series, Meehan is revealed to be what many consider the scariest type of person on earth: a high-functioning sociopath. This is a man who is quick to drop hints of mob connections during petty disputes, and who, when desperate for money, will lurk outside of a bar in a vehicle waiting to slam on his brakes in front of a drunk driver.

At the point the series opens on Meehan, he has won over Debra Newell, a well-to-do interior designer looking for companionship after four previous marriages. He wastes no time ingratiating himself with Newell after meeting her on a dating site, and despite the strong objections of her three adult children, he becomes her fifth husband. That’s when the real Meehan emerges from behind a façade of chiseled beach body and medical scrubs. Insults are followed by threats, which he hurls at any family member who dares challenge him. Private investigators are called in and property destroyed as the tension escalates. The story unspools with incredible reporting from Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard, who hooks listeners by doling out narrative breadcrumbs before delivering blows that sink stomachs. Although the saga has the tentpoles of familiar true-crime tropes, know that you haven’t heard this one before. [Zach Brooke]


Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown
A Case Of The Vickis (w/Joel Kim Booster, Matt McConkey)

Celebratory glasses of rosé will flow whenever Casey Wilson is able to make her triumphant return from maternity leave, but until then, it’s not like Bitch Sesh fans have been left wanting. Over the course of its nearly two-year run, Danielle Schneider and Casey Wilson’s cathartic, gossipy, hilarious all-things-Bravo breakdown podcast has accumulated a wide array of fan-favorite guests whom Schneider has tapped to fill a rotating co-host seat in recent weeks, like June Diane Raphael, Michael Rapaport, and Jessica Chaffin. This week’s post-Halloween episode with longtime friend of the show Matt McConkey and first-time guest Joel Kim Booster is no exception. The trio discusses the “fashion” of the New Jersey franchise, the ethics of watching Trump voters on Dallas, where in the pantheon of great Housewives monologues LeeAnne Locken’s pre-surgery “her husband gets his dick sucked at the Round-Up” speech sits, and on Orange County, just what exactly constitutes “a case of the Vickis.” Spoiler: It’s mistaking a hangover for a heart attack. [Dan Jakes]

Character Creator
Origin Story


In the debut episode of Character Creator (a new monthly podcast devoted to exploring the question of why we care so much about video games), host Brian Fabry Dorsam takes what seems like a relatively simple question and delves into the complex implications of the relationship between video games and the human condition. While many video game podcasts tend to focus on gaming news or reviews, Fabry Dorsam engages with the topic from a decidedly different perspective. Featuring interviews with scientists and journalists, as well as data from various studies, Character Creator explores the impact video games have on our lives: They enhance the aptitude of surgeons, augment cancer treatments, and even increase empathy in young players, just as reading books does. Exceedingly well-produced, with sharp sound editing, Character Creator is one of the most in-depth examinations of video games you’re likely to find, moving beyond skill level to grapple with the greater implications of how and why we play. [Jose Nateras]

The Ant Hill Kids


It’s when world events are at their most confusing, infuriating, or anxiety-inducing that the human brain is most desirous of easy answers and warm comforts. So, this is probably the perfect time to go deep into a podcast about cults. If ever there were a time we’d be most likely to empathize with the people who throw their lot in with an unfit and dangerous leader, it’s now. In this, the first part of a two-part series on Canada’s notorious Ant Hill Kids religious group, co-hosts Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson introduce the listener to an intelligent and charismatic, though narcissistic, young Québécois man named Roch Thériault, whose life was upended by a botched surgery that left him in chronic pain and led him down a path that would ultimately find him torturing his band of faithful followers and ejaculating into at least one human skull. Cults may not always be easy listening, but it’s usually pretty difficult to turn off, and this episode is no exception. Especially with the alternative being actual news programs. [Dennis DiClaudio]

Trump Stories: Trump SoHo


One year on from Donald Trump’s shock victory, the biggest change that couldn’t have been foreseen is the way that his presidency has erased our collective ability to be shocked. Nearly everything he has said and done—publicly, privately, on Twitter—has been so far outside of the gamut of accepted political discourse that incredulity was quickly replaced with begrudging acceptance. In light of this, when NPR’s Embedded announced that its new season would look to unearth the most telling Trump tales, it felt like a quixotic mission. Why go looking for skeletons in the closet when the building in question is a charnel house? And yet, Kelly McEvers and her crack team do what they always do, finding the intrigue that only deep, patient reporting can uncover. This episode is less about Trump himself, focusing instead on several turbid stories emanating from the development of his Trump SoHo property—specifically, the legally questionable role of Trump associate Felix Sater, a man whose actions were perhaps instrumental in Trump’s election but could also quite possibly lead to his downfall. This is a particularly thrilling yarn because of the serpentine path it carves before arriving at a wallop of a conclusion. [Ben Cannon]

The Fridge Light
Snack Time


This week, new podcast The Fridge Light hits its live-taping milestone. From Canada’s Hot Docs Podcast Festival, host and food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith takes listeners on what he describes as “an obsessive and fascinating journey through the hidden stories of the things we eat.” The setup, however, is a little different than most live recordings. Nuttall-Smith separately follows a group of food experts through Toronto, sharing those recordings before inviting everyone to reconvene in front of a live audience. Once together, the group is tasked with choosing, once and for all, the greatest snack of all time. It’s made clear up top that everyone involved is pro-snack. Some even hail snacks as having the “unparalleled ability to tap into our collective consciousness.” Which is to say, these people mean business. There are, however, some limitations (time, space, etc.), which means the guests are actually choosing one out of eight snacks to award the coveted title. What snack wins? You’ll have to listen to find out. [Becca James]

The Shining 2:37
Tony & Danny & Leon


The concept behind The Shining 2:37 is something of a podcast standard by now, but here’s the tagline: “We analyze each 2 min. 37 sec. bloody chunk of Kubrick’s masterpiece. With guests.” The timestamp 2:37 is an affectionate nod to all the Stephen King fans out there; the guests are in fact stellar; and the Leon in this episode title refers to Stanley Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali. Host Suzen Tekla Kruglnska is joined by Elizabeth Yoffe and Joe Dator. Yoffe recently produced Filmworker, which follows Vitali’s interesting career from accomplished actor to Kubrick’s right-hand man. Her insight into The Shining via Vitali’s history is unparalleled, and she offers story after story detailing behind-the-scenes interactions between Vitali and child actor Danny Lloyd. Dator, a New Yorker cartoonist, brings horror humor to round out the conversation, while Kruglnska does a wonderful job of steering this ship and defending the often maligned character of Wendy Torrance. [Becca James]

What Really Happened?
Without A Voice


On What Really Happened? documentarian Andrew Jenks takes a deeper look at cultural figures and the stories that have become inseparable from their legends. With the intention to discover new angles on these narratives, he sheds light on the parts of the stories we don’t hear. This week, Jenks tackles the unforgettable “meltdown” of Britney Spears 10 years ago. Reexamining the way Spears became so unfathomably famous in the first place, and the world’s reaction to her, Jenks recontextualizes the events of the controversy. This dig into what made and broke Spears only inspires more questions about our relationship with celebrity and fame. Reminding the audiences of the dark moments leading up to the shaved head, the smashed car, and the legal trouble makes the headlining conversation about her little-known conservatorship poignant in a way that tabloid news could never manage, or rather, opted not to. The details about this legal arrangement in which Spears is under the “guardianship” of her father are complex and disheartening. But perhaps what is even more lasting is the episode’s eventual turn: Is it even our business at all? [Rebecca Bulnes]

Whiting Wongs
They Invented Those Finger Traps


When it comes to race relations, Rick And Morty isn’t necessarily the first thing to come to mind. Yet Rick And Morty co-creator Dan Harmon and series writer Jessica Gao have used the show’s popularity to conduct real conversations on the topic. Gao brings up early on that “It’s always exhausting for people of color to talk to white people in general. It’s just emotionally taxing.” By doing so with a laugh, in a constructive conversation with Harmon, Whiting Wongs embraces that emotional weight. Both hosts acknowledge how the internet is the primary method of encountering and engaging with dissenting opinions. With a topic as sensitive as race, such engagement is both difficult and necessary, which makes the work Harmon and Gao are doing here valuable. In the fourth episode, the hosts engage with listeners’ responses (via emails and Reddit) to the podcast’s first three episodes, which were produced and released simultaneously. It’s refreshing to hear Harmon acknowledge his own contradictions and mistakes, such as his dubious claim that millennials don’t want to talk about race, and it’s much appreciated that Gao, as a person of color, can host these conversations on a large scale. [Jose Nateras]