Bikram Choudhury in 1982.
Photo: Joan Adlen/Getty Inmages

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
30 For 30 Podcasts

Advertisement

ESPN’s 30 For 30, the documentary hub known for producing stories “too dramatic not to be real,” just delivered a one-two punch to the world of podcasting. First, a quick jab with “Bikram,” its first serialized season in its three-season run, and second (and most importantly), a power punch in the form of Julia Lowrie Henderson. Reported and produced by Henderson over the course of nearly two years, from California to Calcutta, season three’s investigation of Bikram Choudhury’s controversial yoga fitness revolution would not be possible without her narrative prowess. Spread across five episodes titled “Arrival,” “Process,” “Power,” “Truth,” and “Reckoning,” the series spends minimal time on the more athletic aspects of this intense yoga practice (during which participants have been known to urinate, vomit, and/or pass out on their mats) and instead focuses on its charismatic leader in telling the story that might best resonate with listeners in the modern era: the toxic masculinity that led Bikram yoga from its burgeoning boom beginning in the 1970s to its current bust amid sexual assault allegations.

Listeners might find parallels between “Bikram” and recent Netflix phenomenon Wild Wild Country, as both examine this American willingness to place unquestioning belief in Indian gurus because of a mysticism they project onto them. Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story Of Yoga In America, comments in the last episode of “Bikram” that “[Choudhury’s] scale of abuse I think is notable, but the fact that he abused his devotees is not special. That is true of almost every single Indian guru that came to America. There are very few that you can point to that are clean.” Both Syman’s book and ESPN’s podcast series trace the history of Bikram as a turning point in yoga, which worked to transform the practice from a centuries-old discipline to a multibillion-dollar industry—from a soothing, relaxed type of easy stretching to a more forceful, physical sport whose rigorousness enabled Choudhury’s increasingly dark and controlling behavior.

With a strong emphasis on the voices of female survivors, and an astute presentation of Choudhury’s crimes by Henderson, “Bikram” is a knockout of a podcast, one that offers, as host Jody Avirgan put it, “a lot of lessons for how we think about sports, gender, power, and community.” [Becca James]

Advertisement


#GoodMuslimBadMuslim
Ramadan Brain

Advertisement

Ramadan is here, and Taz and Zahra are feeling celebratory yet conflicted. Zahra’s ritual fasting brings backs memories of an eating disorder she had in her youth, which made her and other Muslim women like her feel more devout. Meanwhile, Taz finds herself conditioned by horrible events taking place during past Ramadans to expect the worst this year; it’s enough to make her pledge to remove Facebook and Twitter from her phone during the Holy Month. Fortunately, both women draw strength from a new documentary profiling M.I.A. that casts a different, intimate light on the Sri Lankan rapper. They praise the film as a successful refutation of wrongfully applied labels like “ignorant,” “silly,” and “terrorist-linked” tacked to the singer in the past. A strong argument is also made that artists need not be Ivy League-educated policy wonks to comment on issues affecting them and their communities. Elsewhere, the pair weigh in on the Israeli military killings in Gaza and the hijab-esque fashion trend that took over the Met Gala before venturing outside the studio to ask non-Muslims about the things they would issue a fatwa against. [Zach Brooke]


Angel On Top
S1 E01

Advertisement

When Buffering The Vampire Slayer premiered its “Detective Angel” jingle, it became clear that a podcast about this vampire investigator of the supernatural was all but inevitable. As the Buffy-obsessed podcast moves into season four, a new show emerges, covering the seasons of Angel that simultaneously aired during the series’ original run. The first episode demonstrates, however, that while the format and a few jingles are replicas of its sister show, the hosts and analysis of each episode of Angel On Top couldn’t be more different. Hosts Brittany Ashley and Laura Zak rewatch Angel with more snark and sexual energy than their Sunnydale counterparts, and it’s a welcome match for the vibe of the show they’re recapping. The two superfans approach the series in an analytic yet campy way that complements the path laid before them by Kristin Russo and Jenny Owen Youngs. And the premiere episode shows great promise for not only reliable and entertaining series coverage, but a few Buffy crossover episodes well worth keeping an eye out for. [Brianna Wellen]


Current Affairs
Board Shorts

Advertisement

The staff of lefty politics magazine Current Affairs debuts its new panel podcast with a debate about the “goodness” of work. This philosophical inquiry is one the hosts discuss with examples of real-world policy proposals being set forth as the best way to tackle poverty. One side, which includes many prominent Democratic politicians, is pushing a guaranteed employment program, as another group pushes for universal basic income, a concept that’s been steadily gaining attention and support. Though all panelists are sympathetic to the programs’ aims, their sharp critique highlights shortcomings with both approaches in a way that informs rather than dismisses, while also fleshing out alternatives like full robot Communism. Another segment involves a “leftist Shark Tank” segment where editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson pitches randomized college admissions as a way to demystify the college application process and create a fairer playing field, and the show concludes with a round of everyone sharing a former terrible view they’ve since renounced in solidarity with the embattled Joy Reid. Beyond the appeal of the hosts’ clear intellect, the show sets itself apart with footnotes clarifying obscure references and hazy assertions made during the conversation, and there are satirical commercials, too. [Zach Brooke]


The Dave Chang Show
MSG, Korean Food, And Cultural Appropriation

Advertisement

David Chang, best known as the mastermind behind the Momofuku culinary brand, recently launched The Dave Chang Show to provide thought-provoking conversations about—but also beyond—food. The thing is, the self-proclaimed “avid student and fan of sports, music, art, [and] film” still shines brightest when discussing the inextricable cultural connections associated with what we eat. This episode exemplifies that as Chang is joined by podcast producer Isaac Lee to discuss “the racist implications behind the public perception of MSG, how Korean cuisine became popular in America, and dealing with cultural appropriation.” Those familiar with Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious will recognize that the conversation picks up where the “Fried Rice” episode left off to defend the use of MSG, which has a history of being unfairly maligned despite, as Helen Rosner (who will guest on the podcast’s next episode) wrote for The New Yorker, “dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous.” The conversation delves even deeper after an unintentional false finish followed by podcast producer Aggi Ashagre adding her opinion to the exchange she’s just heard. That sort of authenticity is a gripping indication of The Dave Chang Show’s value in the cultural conversation. [Becca James]


The Story Must Be Told
The Mother Of Nature

Advertisement

There’s no shortage of short fiction podcasts out there, but few spray gore and giggles quite like The Story Must Be Told, an affiliate of The Last Podcast On the Left’s Last Podcast Network. Set in “a church at the end of the world,” this series finds hosts Reid Faylor and Andrew Short overseeing “gooey tales of suburban horror, experimental anti-gospels, and weirdo sci-fi.” Performer Jackie Zebrowski guests on “The Mother Of Nature,” delivering the titular story—a visceral tale of misbegotten love and ravenous forest creatures—with an admirable amount of grit, slop, and snarl. Accompanying her telling is an atmospheric soundtrack that lends weight and dread to the tale, and what’s so fun about the podcast is how that portentousness works to bolster the humor of the hosts, who command these “worship” services with a hilariously antiquated vernacular that routinely hints at a larger, dystopian world waiting beyond the church walls. There’s no traditional host guiding you through each episode; rather, the framing device functions as a story in itself. Is it weird as all hell? Yep. But it’s also endlessly creative, something truly distinct in a narrative landscape that demands a distinguishing factor. [Randall Colburn]


Try It, You’ll Like It
Sushi With Chris Jenkins Of Bobbie’s Small Batch Kitchen

Advertisement

Try It, You’ll Like It begins this week with hosts Winston Carter and David Zwick’s usual “Hot Tastes” segment: Zwick has the divisive opinion that shishito peppers merit the same “pepper rankings” on menus as other dishes marked with little pepper icons to indicate their spiciness. Winston’s “hot taste,” meanwhile, is that there should be more purposefully unappealing food photography, and both of these opinions—intentionally debatable—get the show off to a lively start. The guest this week is Chris Jenkins, the owner of Bobbie’s Small Batch Kitchen, a pop-up BBQ joint. After Jenkins tells how he got into the restaurant business, the discussion goes straight to some in-depth shop talk on the specifics of barbecue. The two hosts know a lot about smoking meats themselves, so they hold their own with Jenkins; but as with every episode, the guest must eventually give a historically disliked food a try, and in Jenkins’ case, it’s sushi. Will he enjoy his Sugarfish delivery? Tune in to find out. Also take a look at the Instagram for great pictures of black garlic, squid, and Peruvian soup. [Jose Nateras]


Unladylike
How To Shoot A Gun

Advertisement

There are a lot of things women do that are not expected of them and not appreciated. Unladylike examines those topics, and on this episode, examines what happens when those topics don’t align with liberal feminism. Hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin talk to firearm enthusiasts who make a fairly good case in favor of weapons as self-defense for the gender that experiences more threats to their safety. Conger and Ervin make their viewpoints clear, yet are able to conduct extremely unbiased interviews with women who feel safer because of their right to own guns. While speaking to a transgender woman and a black female firearm instructor the pair uncover a unique perspective in the discussion about whether or not Americans truly have the right to bear arms. The specifics of each conversation couldn’t be more different, but the message is the same: women need a violent bargaining chip when dealing with men. While opening up the pro-gun dialogue, the hosts are able to shed more light on the negative aspects of anyone owning a weapon, a compelling discussion that is bound to expose listeners to some new ideas. [Brianna Wellen]