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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before becoming a renowned poet and Yale Law School graduate, Reginald Dwayne Betts found himself in front of a judge as a teenager, facing hard time for carjacking. What he heard from the bench that day turned out to be a foreshadowing of a shift in our nation’s criminal justice system and its attitudes toward punishing minors, especially people of color: “I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help,” Betts recalls the judge saying. “Then he sentenced me to nine years in prison.” Through original reporting and in-depth historical explainers, WNYC’s new podcast Caught investigates young people’s entry points into America’s uniquely mammoth incarceration system and the ways that system fails minors down the road. With frequent consultation from Betts, host Kai Wright contextualizes pivotal moments in history against the backdrop of today’s school-to-prison pipeline, including John J. DiIulio Jr.’s “superpredators,” the Willie Bosket murders, zero tolerance, and Roper v. Simmons. This week’s infuriating episode breaks down how, despite recent advances in some state and federal laws, solitary confinement persists as a heinous form of retribution used by corrections officers against young inmates. [Dan Jakes]
Bombings Of 1999
Russian President Vladimir Putin just won his fourth election in a real nail-biter of a contest that saw him obtain more than three quarters of all ballots cast. While you might call shenanigans on the legitimacy of the vote, it pales in comparison to what some say about Putin’s first election back in 1999. It was then that Boris Yeltsin resigned the presidency shortly before the new millennium in the face of a cratering economy that wiped out what fledging middle class had developed over the previous decade under capitalism. Putin, newly installed as acting president, hoped to follow in Yeltsin’s footsteps, but had to contend with a dismal 2 percent approval rating. As luck would have it, support for Putin surged following a series of apartment building bombings in September 1999 that left 293 dead. If you’re inclined to see the worst in Putin, as is host and Latvian PhD student Kristaps Andrejsons, you could draw a direct line between the bombing and Putin’s election. It doesn’t help that the official Russian investigative team analyzing the event saw two members assassinated, or that some historians suggest the act was coordinated by Russian state security. [Zach Brooke]
Trans Specific Partnership & Asher Johnson
The phrase “gender reveal” conjures images of troublesome sheet cake sayings like “Touchdowns or tiaras?” or the cheekier “We’re just here for the sex.” Fortunately, Gender Reveal isn’t here to cram social constructs down your throat. Instead, this podcast centering on non-binary, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people shares interviews with LGBTQ artists, activists, and educators. Molly Woodstock hands this episode over to the hosts of Trans Specific Partnership, Joanna Cifredo and Rebecca King, as well as Vassar student Yasemin Smallens. The result is a well-sourced listen with discussions about passing and “pretty privilege,” and another enlightening conversation between Smallens and Asher Johnson, who is trans but does not identify as a woman while attending Smith, the historically women’s college. Listening to the nuanced rules Smith has developed to address the admittance of transgender students, it’s clear that there is a need for more voices in media that can, as Gender Reveal puts it, “get a little bit closer to understanding what the heck gender is.” [Becca James]
Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers
This week, Dion Baia and J. Blake look back at 1985’s Clue, arguably the best movie ever based on a board game. (Blake is a little less prepared this episode, as he admits that he thought they would be discussing a very different kind of mystery: 1971’s Klute.) The hosts explore the history of the game and its many incarnations throughout the years before diving into Jonathan Lynn’s ensemble comedy. Blake brings up an interesting theory on how Clue wormed its way into the collective consciousness of a generation of cable television subscribers: The cast is familiar enough that even young audiences in the ’80s would recognize the actors from either Young Frankenstein, Laverne & Shirley, or even The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Interesting trivia abounds, with the hosts pointing out how closely the film’s set resembles the original board game (right down to the tile on the floors) and how a code on newspaper ads would allow audiences to find out which of the three endings they were going to see at their screening. [Mike Vanderbilt]
Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About Spider-Man
Kraven The Hunter
Less than a month away from Avengers: Infinity War—the cultural apotheosis of the Marvel cinematic universe’s 10-year run and probably Marvel Comics’ eight-decade life span—the business of superheroes can sometimes feel overwhelmingly massive. Boasting a cast the size of a small city, countless creative collaborators, and a $500 million budget, the film seems to be a testament to the power of a well-run army. By contrast, its source material is pretty humble: It doesn’t take a lot of people or money to make a comic book. For example, the entire original run of The Amazing Spider-Man back in the early ’60s was put together by writer Stan Lee, artist Steve Ditko, and a handful of colorists and letterers. This podcast—hosted by comedians and comic book dorks Will and Kevin Hines—zeroes in on the magic of those relatively small affairs. In this episode, the brothers walk listeners step-by-step through the simple story of Peter Parker, who is smacked down by the people in his life and stalked through the streets by newly introduced villain Kraven The Hunter. It’s not the beats that matter, though; it’s everything in between, which the hosts savor with an infectious charm. [Dennis DiClaudio]
The Fifth Ghost
Like Lore, new podcast The Cabinet spins a dramatized tale of possible supernatural doings, then gently reels it back in with a more skeptical reading of the unexplained. And if The Cabinet isn’t yet on Lore’s level professionally, its tighter focus on technological terrors—specifically video games—provides an added jolt of kludgy, modern anxiety. Host Tim Gibson’s softly accented narration has thus far relayed such well-known creepypasta-style tales as the Berserk killer curse; the Bill Gates-as-antichrist Microsoft Excel conspiracy; the possibly mythical self-deleting Russian video game Killswitch; the allegedly sinister Lavender Town Pokémon music; and more. (Anticipated future topics: Polybius, the haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge, suicidal Luigi.) This week’s seventh episode takes on a supposedly possessed Ms. Pac-Man cabinet, with Gibson doing an energetically lo-fi job dramatizing the spooky events surrounding a young family’s newest retro rec room accessory, aided by the podcast’s own eerie retro synth soundtrack. Like The Cabinet’s other installments, this episode pulls its inspiration from the internet (the ghostly arcade machine was written up on Kotaku back in 2008), providing yet another level of “ghost in the machine” resonances. [Dennis Perkins]
We can all use some easy listening these days. Julian McCullough and Meg Molloy put a comedic spin on the easiest, coziest things to listen to and talk about on their new show. The combination of the hosts’ dulcet tones and the soothing topics they take on truly does, as they promise “an audio sweater for your heart.” They share positive philosophies from unknown and famous folks, whether reading them from a book, sharing a quote, or talking to guests, all while calming Muzak plays in the background. This week, actor Drew Droege and drag queen Jackie Beat discuss their love of drag parodies of popular culture and how it helps them escape the tragic times we live in. Fitting the tone and concept of the show, the way the hosts and guests speak with each other is soft, lovely, and easy to listen to. They discuss a shared love for performing in drag and using the form to present classic scenes from The Golden Girls and Who’s The Boss? to a community that needs a makeup job and a laugh, and even the more serious topics are approached with a light-hearted spirit. [Brianna Wellen]
This Is Normal
Life Felt Hopeless For Karlee Gross. Then She Got Help.
This Is Normal is a new podcast where young people speak openly about their mental health, recollecting the challenges they’ve faced and offering advice on how they overcame them. As part of the Kids In Crisis series from USA Today, the guiding belief for This Is Normal is that sharing one’s stories helps people feel less alone. Putting that idea into action, high school senior Karlee Gross lets listeners in on her battle with severe depression and anxiety attacks, which led to a suicide attempt her sophomore year. Perhaps the most moving moment comes when Gross insists there are better days ahead. What rings so true is her admission that she would block out the people who told her things would get better, before saying, “I would stay hopeful. Stuff will change, and I know it seems like it won’t. It’s okay to feel like that.” A great listen for both kids and adults, This Is Normal creates a much-needed space for an open and uplifting dialogue regarding mental health. [Becca James]
In January, Katya Zamolodchikova (the drag persona of artist Brian McCook) announced an indefinite hiatus from drag, citing concern for her own mental and physical health. In March, the bitch came back. It would be understandable if the first episode of Katya’s new podcast with Craig MacNeil kept a healthy distance from the subject of Katya’s well-being, but instead, the co-hosts jump with both feet into the complicated, sometimes uncomfortable waters of drug addiction and mental illness—and knowing Katya, they probably landed in a split and then bounced around down there. “Entrapment!” is a chaotic listen, with MacNeil valiantly keeping the conversation on topic, or at least adjacent to it; and while it’s predictably R-rated and funny, it’s also moving and unsettling. Katya rockets from why “butt babies can’t live” to her own psychotic break, from scorpion hunting in rehab to getting a disturbance-related eviction notice. MacNeil’s compassionate, funny wrangling is an excellent match for Katya’s frenetic charisma. The result is a wild conversation of remarkable candor. [Allison Shoemaker]
Why Won’t You Date Me?
Gay Bar Sidewalk Sale W/ Mano Agapion
Nicole Byer hosts Why Won’t You Date Me?, a podcast devoted to her experience as a single person. Byer, a comedian and actor who’s appeared in a number of television shows, including Loosely Exactly Nicole and Nailed It, is joined this week by comedian Mano Agapion. While both are hilarious, on this episode they have a raw and nuanced discussion of single life as it relates to racism, the gender binary, body-shaming, and ideas of the “other” in a society that values white heteronormativity, even in gay culture. The pair’s frank conversation about code-switching and cultural relativity is nevertheless charming, thanks to their charismatic personalities, and they still manage to cover lighter fare like Grindr hookups and the values of a single familiar dick as opposed to the fun of sleeping around. Why Won’t You Date Me? holistically approaches the subtleties of single life as a member of a minority demographic, staying raunchy and hilarious while getting refreshingly real and deep. [Jose Nateras]