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 email@example.com.
This episode, released just in time for Election Day, opens with the travesty of the 2000 presidential election and its embarrassing modern election machine design and works backward into the ancient voting machines used throughout history. The “butterfly ballots” used in the 2000 election are a perfect example of bad design, something 99% Invisible not only knows well but has an artful way of calling out. By using a variety of audio sources and interviews to tell their story, each part is explained better than any confusing article about ballots that has hit social media. Host Roman Mars makes it clear as he compares present and past that there is no going back to simpler times, and that the charm of voting with ascribed ceramics in the fifth century has been replaced with incredibly complicated engineering (the web landing for this episode features a voting machine video story that may appear familiar to readers of America’s Finest News Source). Yet as always, 99% Invisible is rolling deep in the charm of design, and uses personal stories to endear the 2000 election as well as designers working to create a ballot that is not deliberately wonky.
The Adventure Zone
Petals To The Metal—Chapter Nine
In the process of building out the “Petals To The Metal” story arc, Dungeon Master and youngest brother Griffin McElroy has created an elaborate third act. The Death Race-style action sequence is enough to send a lesser DM to the liquor cabinet in defeat. To his credit, Griffin keeps a firm hand on the action, despite brothers Travis and Justin, and father Clint, attempting to subvert the race at every turn. Multiple battle carriages are all interacting with their own crews and weapons simultaneously. There’s some serious rule-bending going on, which has been par for the course since day one. But as with previous adventure arcs, the story and action gets tighter as they reach the final chapters, and “Petal To The Metal” is no exception. Takko, Magnus, Merle, and NPC bugbear Klarg proceed to kick ass and take names in a sequence that is one-half Mad Max: Fury Road, and one-half Sarlaac-pit showdown. If you didn’t care for the suddenness with which Magnus summoned “Garyl,” the spectral binicorn, you’ll be happy to hear the grisly details of his demise when a very rare critical miss is rolled. Through an impressive series of spells, actions, and suspiciously successful dice roles, the band of heroes finally seems ready to take on the Raven in the upcoming, final chapter of this adventure.
It wouldn’t be right to advise listeners to skip the first half of this episode of Bullseye; after all, Matt Braunger is a talented, funny comedian who is refreshingly humble and open about his single-minded desire to apply 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ philosophy to succeeding at stand-up. But it’s contributor Guy Branum’s interview with Margaret Atwood that steals the show. It’s not that Branum surpasses the interviewing skills of Bullseye host and Terry Gross-heir-apparent Jesse Thorn; quite the opposite, in fact. On Pop Rocket, Branum is large and self-assured, but he is stopped dead in his tracks by one of his literary heroes. It also doesn’t help that the elder stateswoman of speculative fiction has a reputation as a notoriously prickly interviewee. But Atwood dismisses that moniker the same way she does all labels, and essentially picks up the gushing Branum, compassionately cradling him through the interview. In the process, listeners glean a little more insight into how the contrarian gears turn in Atwood’s mind, including learning why she’s flat-out opposed to saying what a novel is about, and what’s going on with HBO’s adaptation of her MaddAddam trilogy.
This episode of Criminal is in some ways one of the lighter ones in the true crime podcast’s history. But it remains deeply moving. The story of Corporal Scott Foster and his pairing with a K-9 unit humanize the canine officers, something of an easy feat given the hard working nature of the dogs. But when one dog is injured and must retire (in Foster’s home), the dynamic with his new partner gets as complicated as any relationship with an adult human. His original dog, a gigantic and confident alpha named Officer Talon, took a great deal of training before he would listen to a human counterpart, but once Foster got through to Talon they became inseparable. And it’s the word, “inseparable,” that immediately signals how special the dog is and how unfortunate that it fell through an unfinished attic floor while pursuing a suspect early in its promising career. As Foster goes on to explain how he has built his life around his dogs, and how much respect he has for his new live-in partner Officer Vader, the dynamic becomes a bit sad. Talon is not so old that he isn’t eager to respond to Foster’s every command in front of Criminal’s journalist staff. Yet Vader leaves for work with Foster, often sneaking out a back door and distracting Talon with another dog. If the dynamic sounds silly, it’s all the more gripping in a podcast that picks up the whimpering of a real animal and the crunching of leaves in a training exercise.
Burger King: John Roy
Rockdoughberfest 2015 seemed to do a real number on Mike Mitchell, and by the end (roughly sometime around the point when he shouts, “Fuck you, and fuck Rockdoughberfest,” to his co-host Nick Wiger) he was basically fed up with the whole podcast. For everyone else, though, it was a rousing success filled with many memorable moments. Because the food at all rock-themed chain restaurants is more or less the same, the Doughboys’ reviews of what they ate at each spot throughout the month blurred together a bit, so it’s a relief to hear them pick apart the (relatively) distinctive menu of Burger King. Guest John Roy brings a great energy to the show, along with a knowledge of the chain’s history and some terrific, nostalgic stories of eating at one of its locations in particular. Rockdoughberfest ended up being more of a departure than one might expect for Doughboys, and while it brought about some of the funniest moments of the show to date, the end of it also marks a welcome return to the perfect template the hosts had established beforehand.
Hello, From The Magic Tavern
Any good student of dramatic narrative structure can likely explain that there are two timeless principles that govern the inevitability of certain actions therein: namely those of Chekhov’s Gun, and the more modern Moonlighting Effect. The former states that if an idea is presented in the first act of a play, it simply must occur before the show has ended, while the latter is predicated on the prolonging of such events across longer narrative arcs for fear of capitulation. With Hello, From The Magic Tavern host Arnie Niekamp—trapped, one will recall, in the alternate dimensional land of Foon—has eschewed the idea of talking about “Earth stuff” since the first episode, worrying that it would bore his listeners. This week the gun finally goes off, so to speak, as Niekamp decides to indulge his co-hosts Chunt the shapeshifting badger (Adal Rifai) and the wizard Usidore (Matt Young) with information about his own homeworld. The trio are joined again by court eunuch and Master Of Whispers Benedict Whisperbrew (played with mellifluous wit by Brendan Dowling), and it becomes apparent that Niekamp’s aversion to “Earth stuff” might be due to his apparent ignorance of the topic. It’s a rolickingly funny, tounge-firmly-in-cheek episode, which allows the show to set up a new stable of running gags.
Little Gold Men
And The Year’s Best Oscar Campaign Is…: Krista Smith
While most of the nation is preoccupied gawking at the otherworldly sideshow that is the 2016 presidential election contest, there is actually another culturally relevant contest, or collection of contests, underway on America’s West Coast. Though not so overt—and less obviously bloody—the various, interlocking campaigns among filmmakers and actors for Academy Awards can be equally fascinating once their machinations are revealed to those outside of Hollywood. And that’s just what Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich, Mike Hogan, and Richard Lawson do with Little Gold Men, a relatively new podcast (this is only its fourth episode) that disabuses listeners of any naive notions they may have held that Oscars are handed out based solely upon merit, and presents details of the black tie events and hand-pressing opportunities that will ultimately lead to victories and defeats this upcoming February 28. In this episode, Vanity Fair’s executive West Coast editor Krista Smith jumps into the conversation to explain how Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be doing everything in his power to ensure he doesn’t go home empty-handed yet again, and defend her theory that the new installment of Star Wars very well may go home with the night’s top honor.
New York Times Magazine editor and writer Jazmine Hughes isn’t afraid to be brutally honest about her life in her work, even when it comes to her most intimate and sometimes humiliating experiences. She’s written about dressing like Cookie from Empire for a week to feel more confident at work, her struggles with interracial dating, and getting her period and bleeding all over a chair at orientation on her first day at the Times. Hughes brings the same openness and sense of humor to her Longform interview, talking with Max Linsky about how she feared leaving her comfortable job at The Hairpin for the Times, the database she created with her friends to connect publications with writers of color, and how it feels to be 24 and working at one of the most famous newspapers in the world. “I don’t feel 24,” she says. “I feel like a very sexy 32.” Linsky closes the episode by asking Hughes some of the questions she used to ask her readers in The Hairpin column “One Big Question,” such as, “What makes you feel powerful?” Answers Hughes, “‘The Jumpoff,’ by Lil’ Kim. Listening to female rappers, eviscerating dumbasses on the internet, and… my Instagram comments are lit right now because teens have all found me and they’re thanking me. I feel—not powerful in a scary way, but powerful, like, I actually did what I set out to do.”
No Shave, No Shade
In this week’s episode of The Read, Kid Fury responds to their first listener letter by sighing and saying, “I’m so tired,”—and that sentiment seems to sum up his and Crissle’s feelings toward the whole world: celebrities, listeners, and even Crissle’s home state of Oklahoma. Kid Fury and Crissle have a lot of stories to roll their eyes at this week, from the hashtag #TLCisGoingtoJail created by angry fans convinced T-Boz and Chilli stole the $430,000 they raised on Kickstarter in January to make an album because it hasn’t been released yet; TMZ alleging Chris Brown is addicted to sizzurp after he was photographed sitting near a styrofoam cup; to the listener who asked what she should do about her boyfriend of a year after seeing him without a beard for the first time because he’s now apparently too ugly to have her children. Kid Fury and Crissle continue to channel their exhaustion with their reads, which both contain instances of white people acting incredibly racist while claiming to mean no harm. Kid Fury directs his read to Angela Box, the Fox News correspondent who said black people just have “a chip on their shoulder” against everyone who doesn’t look like them, and Crissle has a few choice words for Oklahoma after the husband of a state mayor dressed up as a KKK member for Halloween. “If you’re in Lahoma, Oklahoma and you know this shit is fucked up, and you sitting back like, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t really affect me,’ then you are part of the goddamn problem,” Crissle says, and it’s obvious the problem extends well outside her home state.
Shine On You Crazy Goldman
Host PJ Vogt begins the episode innocuously enough, discovering an online support group that helps people get through bad trips from their desktops. But one thing leads to another, and narrative begins to skew, as Vogt’s hard-coded wariness of LSD and psychedelics slowly melts into driven curiosity. Taking drugs, especially stronger ones, is like making a journey through a fairy tale forest. It separates you from those who haven’t made the trip, and the innocent announce their naïveté with misplaced fears. But as you watch neophytes wander closer to the the forest’s edge, you can’t help but feel a mixture of concern and delight. That’s a long way of saying that Vogt and Reply All producer Phia Bennin decide to take controlled “microdoses” of LSD for a workweek without telling their co-workers. For the two Gimlet employees, the results are mixed. Vogt doesn’t lose his mind, despite his long-held fears. But neither did they reach some greater, lasting epiphany, as was suggested by interviewee and psychedelics advocate Dr. Fadiman. For listeners, the results are extraordinary, particularly in hearing recordings of Vogt during his long, strange week. Closing out with a poignant moment of catharsis as Vogt confesses and bonds with co-host Alex Goldman, “Shine On” is one of the weirdest and most profound episodes of Reply All to date.
Stuff You Should Know
How Grimm’s Fairy Tales Work
The closing part of a two episode series on fairy tales, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant delve deeper into the famous Grimm brothers, and the ever-evolving interpretations of their stories. This is one of those episodes of Stuff You Should Know that should be interesting to anyone and everyone, because the stories they discuss are the basis of every child’s upbringing in one way or another. It’s these types of all-encompassing episodes that find the listener enthralled, as they’re able to directly connect it back to their own lives. Why is there always an evil step mom? What’s with the dark origins of these fairy tales? Why have they lived on, and what remains true to their original form? This episode attempts to answer these questions with numerous different theories that relate back to the stories’ deeply ancestral lives. It’s interesting to think about the varying interpretations they present, whether it be feminist, Freudian, leftist, or Disney’s own patriarchally inclined renderings. The hosts also discuss realism versus fantasy, and how children’s stories have lived through those phases, and what that means to the way children grow up. It’s a fascinating episode that leaves one wondering what they were taught in their youth, and whether the stories and reinterpretations can live on their own, or are born with a deeply rooted lesson that begs to be learned.
We Got This!
Best James Bond: Matt Gourley
With Spectre hitting theaters this week, and Daniel Craig making a point of saying he’s not returning to the role, it’s a perfect opportunity for Mark Gagliardi and Hal Lublin to proclaim which actor was the best James Bond. And while the currency of this podcast is sweeping subjective decisions certain to rankle their listeners, Mark and Hal understand this ruling may be too important and specialized to independently issue. To assist with their proceedings, the duo wisely invites Matt Gourley on as their guest. In addition to being podcasting royalty, Gourley has become a self-styled expert in all things 007, as co-host of the James Bonding podcast. By approaching the decision with the rubric of “Who is the most like Ian Fleming’s written creation,” the three are actually able to reach a logical conclusion with ease. Their decision (which will inevitably enrage many Bond film purists) is easy to predict, and almost irrelevant. The secret sauce in this episode is made from their discussions about the social context of each Bond iteration, and their separate, equally important ranking of Bond actors that Gagliardi, Lublin, and Gourley would most like to spend dinner with. Speaking of spending dinner with an actor, Matt Gourley’s strange anecdote of his evening with Bond villain Robert Davi makes this episode an essential entry.
You Are Not So Smart
Naive Realism: Lee Ross
It’s an odd quirk of the world that nobody believes that their personally held beliefs are incorrect. And yet, almost everybody’s are. Certainly anybody’s that are different from your own. As a matter of fact, you yourself used to be wrong about a number of things until you wised up and became the across-the-board clear-thinking person you are today. You see, the problem is that everyone is suffering from a phenomenon called “naive realism,” the belief that they have an objective and totally unbiased view of reality and that those who disagree with them are irrational or deluded. Believe it or not, they even think that about you. Isn’t that crazy? Anyway, in this episode of You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney explores this extremely human peculiarity with Lee Ross, a psychologist and co-author of the book The Wisest One in the Room. You, most likely, will not have any of your beliefs about yourself challenged over the course of this hour-long discussion, but almost everyone else you know certainly will. It sure will be tough for them to realize how little they understand even themselves.
You Made It Weird
In this week’s episode, Pete Holmes sits down with Wet Hot American Summer’s David Wain and makes it weird. Except he doesn’t, really, because the interview happens so effortlessly, with hardly any steering necessary from the host. There are probably tons of Wain interviews out there in the age of podcasting, but what makes this one particularly great is how the two slowly but surely find that they are kindred spirits, both having fond memories of camp, and both being kind of obsessed with magic. They’re two man-children in the best possible way, and it allows them to branch off into more complex conversations involving relationship commitments, communes, parenting, and psychedelic drugs. The episode also ends up being a great one for aspiring comedians and writers, as Wain discusses following your comedic instinct, and trusting your taste. It never comes off as preachy, but instead, is a refreshing and optimistic insight on the comedy world. Wain is so accessible and friendly that listeners leave feeling like they’ve made a friend. At the end of the episode, Holmes declares it one of his favorites, and it’s not hard to see why.
“And did President Hamilton say, ‘You can not do your magic, Peter Houdini?’”—Brendan Dowling as Benedict Whisperbrew completely messing up Earth facts, Hello, From The Magic Tavern
“You hope that one day when you’re the editor-in-chief of Blah Blah Blah that you’ll wake up and be like, ‘Okay, I deserve my job.’ But so far I haven’t met anyone who has told me that they feel that way. But, I will say, I don’t talk to white men a lot.”—Jazmine Hughes, Longform
“If you used any form of common sense, you’d probably say, ‘Hmm, it was just a few months ago that TLC actually raised money for this album, I’ve never actually put an album together, not one worth buying anyway, so I should probably just wait and see what happens.’ Just because Beyonce did B-Day in two weeks—what a time to be alive—some people, especially if you’re trying to put together an album people gave their hard-earned money for, you’re probably going to want to take your time with it and make sure that it is top-notch, especially since you ain’t got Left Eye.” Kid Fury on the people who started the hashtag #TLCGoingToJail, The Read