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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Most Amazing Destruction
The concept of Chris Gethard’s show is that everyone has a story to tell, even though some might be slow to start. Though the latest episode doesn’t launch into its heart-wrenching story right at the top, the episode is hardly a slow burn. The caller, an aspiring voice actress, is immediately comfortable with Gethard, asking him interesting and strange questions that quickly allow them to have a genuine conversation on what it means to be successful and more topics that suit Gethard’s unflinching sincerity. The episode is already on a roll before the pivotal moments come: When Gethard steers the conversation toward the caller’s story, the episode shifts into a whole new landscape. The caller bravely shares intimate details of her experiences with homelessness, web-cam pornography, and everything she has continued to do to fight for her dreams. Her story is heartbreaking, yet glimmering with hope, making for an emotional ride as they discuss what it is to truly live and breathe for your art, no matter how it may destroy you. The episode is a true testament to the power of podcasting—not only because of the important story this show is sharing, but because a part of that story is how podcasts helped someone battle through the worst of times. By the end, anonymity is broken, and Julia WD Harrison’s voice is heard.
Despite Serial having a lackluster second season, the podcast has influenced a slew of similarly minded, episodic, true-crime podcasts. And if you’re still jonesing for the sleuthing of Serial’s first season, you could do a lot worse than Breakdown. Produced by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Breakdown’s Bill Rankin is back for a another season of examining the dysfunctional Georgia legal system. While the first season put an obscure murder trial and conviction under the microscope, season two is dealing with ongoing case of Justin Ross Harris. Harris was charged with murdering his two-year-old son by intentionally leaving him in a hot car in 2014. When it came to light that Harris was actively sexting multiple women during the incident, the case made national headlines. Given the nature of the crime, this season will likely be as difficult to hear as episode one is. Rankin walks through a statistical analysis and profile of parents involved in hot car deaths, establishing the plausibility that Harris is being railroaded by the prosecution. He then shifts gears and begins to explore the deplorable behavior he engaged in, including suspicious conversations he had in advance of his son’s death, and some horrific possible motives. While Rankin lacks Sarah Koenig’s manicured delivery, he has experience and insight in spades. Breakdown offers rich context to the kind of case that is usually boiled down to incendiary soundbites by cable news pundits.
Eddie Jason & Chris
Eddie Barella and Jason Newcomer trudge forward without Chris Barr and don’t change a bit of their snotty style this week despite continued praise from Colorado’s premier alt-weekly The Westword—namely last week’s feature on the best music podcasts in Denver. As Eddie Jason & Chris is a live internet radio show, the hiccups in broadcasting and the hosts’ good humor in moments of panic only reinforce the trio’s DIY ethos. And despite a brief, unspectacular call with Silverstein frontman Shane Told about his new podcast Lead Singer Syndrome, Barella and Newcomer’s niche is apparent thanks to the episode’s headline interview with Richie Gordon, co-creator of the upcoming pop punk history program Headliners. Gordon describes how the show frames early- to mid-2000s pop punk through milestones like the release of Bleed American and the evolution of sound that brought the genre from Dine Alone Records to Fueled By Ramen. On either end of the Gordon interview, Barella and Newcomer fill the time with fun prank phone calls—a harmless attempt to get a refund for Batman V Superman may be the episode’s highlight—and, though Barr is absent, the “news Chris would do” segments put fluffy commercial radio DJ breaks to shame.
Distance is extremely important in journalism, affording the public a true sense of objectivity in approach to all topics. But that same remove often acts as a detriment to the depth and quality of information a reporter is able to gather, often raising more questions in the process than answers. The approach of the new NPR podcast Embedded is to subvert such pitfalls by getting as close to the story as possible. Each episode sees host and reporter Kelly McEvers diving deep into a different topic, attempting to suss out the story behind the headlines. With this week’s debut episode, McEvers travels to rural Indiana to spend time among a group of intravenous drug users following reports of the largest HIV outbreak in that state’s history. The stories from McEvers’ time in an unlikely drug den are heartbreaking in large part for their banality, describing a desperate group of people driven by their addiction to the prescription opioid Opana. Especially interesting is the tale of how the pill’s reformulation by its manufacturer—ostensibly done to make it abuse-resistant—only served to worsen the lives of its abusers exponentially. McEvers brings a certain absence of guile to her reporting that helps disarm subjects, allowing for rather amazing insights. This episode announces the arrival of a truly powerful new show.
Sean Cannon is ahead of his time. After toiling away for years on 20-minute chat segments for his late night WFPK After Dark program, Cannon has found his groove in After Dark‘s new iteration The Guestlist, a long-form arts and culture show that has expanded beyond alt-comedy and indie rock into a formidable up-and-coming non-commercial radio program in its own right. Yet Cannon is still at his best, as many hosts are, sinking into the groove with guests that represent his own entrenched interests: Justin Pierre, Motion City Soundtrack vocalist, steals the show from actor Ethan Hawke. Cannon is quick to point out, though, the coincidental parallels in his interviews with Hawke and Pierre. Both men are set free to ramble, and Hawke’s typically heady answers to Cannon’s questions about role selection and Richard Linklater prep the listener for Pierre’s visceral response to the conversation’s natural flow toward his history of addiction. Pierre also takes the opportunity, in the episode’s traditional closing guest DJ set, to unleash some grungy punk from Lemuria, Los Campesinos!, The Joy Formidable, and Speedy Ortiz to the airwaves, which may define The Guestlist’s place in public radio.
March 25, 2016
Kevin Smith hasn’t always had the best relationship with film critics, but over the past week, he’s found validation in their shared reactions to Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as the blockbuster has been widely trashed even as it cleans up at the box office. But unlike many of the dissenting opinions online, Smith’s critiques of the film on his podcast Hollywood Babble-On—along with those of his cohost Ralph Garman—come from a place of warm fandom, not cynicism, allowing him to stand apart from some of the movie’s snarkier detractors. As he points out, BVS biggest problem is its nonexistent sense of humor, something even the darkest of superhero movies needs if it wants its story to be effective. However, Smith also gives credit where credit’s due, going on to praise Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman and Zack Snyder’s visually riveting direction. The whole conservation serves as a reminder that, regardless of one’s opinion of Smith, the guy not only knows and loves comic books: He can talk about them in a way that’s thoughtful yet tough, loving yet analytical. Maybe he has more in common with film critics than he thinks.
Aimee Mann only remembers a little bit about her small yet important part in The Big Lebowski as Nihilist Woman, Franz’s Girlfriend (the film’s mysterious severed toe belongs to her). She can’t remember which Coen brother did what. She doesn’t even remember much about the role itself. But none of that matters. A less funny and interesting musician may have floundered when talking to host Matt Gourley, but Mann is able to explore a wide variety of topics with humor and charisma, not all of which have to do directly with the film in question. For instance, her best story involves singing on Rush’s “Time Stand Still” and appearing in its music video. And the stuff she does recall from Lebowski is amusing in itself, especially Flea’s wild attempts at speaking made-up German. Her somewhat brief conversation with Gourley ends on her music in Magnolia, segueing into a second chat with Paul F. Tompkins, who has a tiny vocal role in the film. No disrespect to the genius of Tompkins, who offers a bit more cinematic insight than Mann, but this live episode of I Was There Too ends up being her show all the way.
The Wow! Signal
Fresh off of an outpouring of love and support for her candid phone call with Chris Gethard on his Beautiful Stories… podcast, voice actress Julia WD Harrison keeps up the momentum with a truly inventive new one-woman variety show. And in a time where some of the most revered voice actors are people like H. Jon Benjamin, whose range extends only as far as Jason Penopolis, Harrison is nothing short of wunderkind. She bounces from genre to genre while simulating a wandering radio dial, providing the voices of a southern sex therapist, a stuffy-nosed young boy with a sci-fi obsession, a hilarious well-meaning mother on voicemail, and, most impressively, a pitch-perfect cat. The bits weave seamlessly between each other—expertly edited by Harrison herself—and hint at a fully realized world below the surface of these goofy transmissions. And in spite of the minor, unconventional buzz surrounding her at the moment, she admirably lets the work define itself. A lesser person would have been content with their brush with Gethard fame, but Harrison proves she’s far more bite than bark.
Modern Day Philosophers
“Professor” Irwin Corey And Mahatma Gandhi
There is such an excess of life springing from this particular episode that it has a truly tonic effect on the listener. Comedian Danny Lobell sits down to interview and talk philosophy with 100-year-old funnyman ”Professor” Irwin Corey and the results are rather phenomenal. Though hard of hearing, Corey has lost almost none of his faculty for comedy which earned him plaudits from no less an authority on the subject than Lenny Bruce. At first it feels like everything Corey tells Lobell is a line cribbed from old Catskills routines, but it quickly becomes apparent that his wit is still quite sharp. The tone swings wildly between light and humorous recollections of Corey’s upbringing and comedy career, juxtaposed with outsize pronouncements about everything from marijuana, anarchy, and religion. There are some moments where things Corey espouses that hit the ear a little hard for how retrograde the positions feel, but for the most part the interview feels forward thinking. Lobell does a great job keeping their discussion moving along whenever any rough patches occur. There are laughs throughout and some genuine insight as well, making for one of the more unique podcast listens in a long time.
Present For Duty
In an attempt to avoid the particularly True Detective-season-one finale that dogged Serial at the end of its own debut season, host Sarah Koenig and her team strategically reserved their heaviest questions regarding the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for this, the final episode of the show’s sophomore outing. Namely, Koenig is most concerned with the lingering uncertainty over whether any soldiers died as a result of Bergdahl’s desertion. The answers prove to be particularly elusive and even those that are given are far from clearly delineated. From the beginning the story of Sgt. Bergdahl was one of politicized murk, and if anything it has only gotten more so in the digging. The people willing to talk to Koenig don’t hold back though, telling raw stories, of attacks, cover-ups, and the complicated calculus at work behind it all. What is clear is that the episode is a taut, engaging piece of audio storytelling, a wonderful cap to this at-times curiously disfavored second season. Curious in how it saw the show become even more assured in its technique—deftly weaving the tightly wound threads of a tale which felt at times like real-life Le Carré—all while garnering less of a fervent following than the previous season’s complex murder tale.
The line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is fuzzy. Sporkful host Dan Pashman learned this after he received a critical tweet from a Korean-American who was annoyed at his suggested improvement-of-sorts for the traditional Korean fried rice dish bibimbap. Instead of brushing off the criticism, he invited the listener onto the show to find out why his seemingly innocuous innovation might offend others. That was the jumping off point for a five-episode “Other People’s Food” series, in which he spoke to a number of guests from a variety of backgrounds to drill down into their views on what should be considered fair game when eating and cooking outside one’s native culture, as well as how cuisine contributes to personal identity. In this episode, actor/dancer Rosie Perez discusses the powerful childhood experience of communal eating and community acceptance when visiting her father’s family in Puerto Rico. She also recalls how the bright and pungent foods she helped her aunt prepare during the summers served as a lifeline during the many months out of the year she spent in an abusive Catholic convent, being encouraged to reject her Latino heritage.
Brandon Wardell is a very funny comedian who has his own Comedy Central Snapchat Series Hot Takes, a wildly popular Twitter account with a dedicated following, and the sort of status that allows him to DJ random parties in L.A. just because. There is no reason that Brandon Wardell shouldn’t feel on top of the world, and his confidence is rightfully evident online and in real life, which is why comedian Esther Povitsky, a.k.a. Little Esther, is the perfect person to interview him. Although her podcast Weird Adults could easily be swept into an ever-growing pile of predictable interview shows, the show is special in its own appropriately weird way. It has a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere that others wish they could capture. Povitsky might have an unassuming and almost meek voice, but she is a quietly savage interviewer, blunt and brutally honest, with a knack for hilariously knocking people down a peg. She ruthlessly accuses Wardell of being a fuck boy, and asks questions like, “Were you ever fat? You seem like you could’ve been” in a playful way that still seems like a sneak attack. In the interview, Wardell is exactly what you want him to be—funny, referential, and purely millennial as they talk about different realms of Twitter, what celebrities they want to date, and how Facebook is “internet skid row.” But he is most accessible when he is reacting to her accusations, showing a side that only Povitsky could bring out.
You Must Remember This
The Blacklist Part 7: Monsieur Verdoux: Charlie Chaplin’s Road To Hollywood Exile
Though this is part seven of this podcast’s exploration of the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940s, you don’t need to play catch up to get into it. You Must Remember This is one of the best audio documentary series because of its smooth pacing and niche focus on telling stories from the first century of Hollywood. This episode covers the final moments of Charlie Chaplin’s career and host Karina Longworth expertly narrates how the U.S. government manipulated America’s favorite British silent film star into self-deportation. Chaplin’s experiences expose America’s strange concepts of censorship at the time, and its total fear of the power of film and celebrity. Longworth suggests that Chaplin’s stance as an independent filmmaker, and not a cog in the studio system, is why J. Edgar Hoover found him so dangerous. Chaplin foolishly believed that his celebrity would protect him, but like so many other celebrities who once thrived, that status can also be a double-edged sword.
“Batman V Superman is the movie that finally answers the question ‘What would happen if Batman and Superman were both fucking assholes?”—Ralph Garman, Hollywood Babble-On
“You know what, I have to sing later, so I think a big glass of milk is the wrong move.”—Aimee Mann turning down a White Russian while discussing The Big Lebowski, I Was There Too
“Did you know that if you use the dog filter on Snapchat, you’re a hoe?”—Brandon Wardell, Weird Adults