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.
Strangers From Twitter
Gaslighting America With @Smorgasboredom
“I’m being frickin’ earnest right now,” co-host Lauren Duca says at one point during the latest episode of Strangers From Twitter, her podcast with Brett Arnold in which they interview Twitter personalities who are a stranger to at least one of them. The podcast delves into conversations about how Twitter shapes and reshapes relationships, shifting dialogues, and the role of social media in all aspects of life and culture. This week, that meant getting real about the election of Donald Trump with guest Evan DeSimone. Arnold, DeSimone, and Duca especially are indeed frickin’ earnest throughout. They offer smart and sharp commentary on social media’s role in this election, including a quick primer on Facebook dark posts. Underneath their analysis is a lot of humanity. The episode plays out like a raw real-time processing of their emotional reactions to this election. They talk about where to go from here without being prescriptive, not claiming to have any concrete, simple answers. “Gaslighting America” pointedly and intelligently doesn’t separate the personal from the political, and it makes for a tense episode, but there’s also something powerful and briefly comforting about the collective processing going on. If this election has you devastated, scared, and unsure about the future, this podcast won’t necessarily change that, but it will make you feel a little less alone.
[Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]
Between The Liner Notes
Boy Bands, Blimps & Ponzi Schemes
Lou Pearlman died in August. He was in prison for running a half-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. You probably remember him, though, as the leering, boisterous lug behind ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, not to mention the man who helped change the fabric of mainstream music in the late ’90s. In this episode of Between The Liner Notes, host Matthew Billy interviews both Pearlman’s former talent manager, Jeanne Tanzy-Williams, and his biographer, Tyler Gray, to help flesh out the Svengali’s life, career, and downfall. Fascinating anecdotes abound, including the story behind how Pearlman made his fortune and the formation of the Backstreet Boys (both involve blimps). While the episode certainly humanizes Pearlman, it’s not attempting to tug any heartstrings; he was shitty to almost everybody in his life, especially Tanzy-Williams, who still somehow manages to shore up a little sympathy for the man. Still, Pearlman was a visionary, an idea man of rare drive. Sure, he bilked all the kids he worked with to some degree, but he also invested millions upon millions of his own dollars into the ventures. His legacy lives on, whether we like it or not.
In the James Cameron oeuvre, Titanic is obviously an important film. To tackle this moment in Cameron’s career, Griffin Newman and David Sims enlist the help of Emily Yoshida (Spin) and Katey Rich (Vanity Fair) in a two-part episode that leaves no detail unexamined. Rich is unable to stick around, yet Yoshida’s insights are consistently valuable, whether she’s pointing out the flaws of Leonardo DiCaprio’s supposedly “romantic” character, or eagerly sharing her love of the CD-ROM game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time. Starting at the halfway point in the movie, the three are able to take their time analyzing the masterful way Cameron paints his scenes, and as chaos takes over the ship, their enthusiasm only grows. They break down every iconic moment, from the drawing scene where they note that Dawson’s sketch is kind of basic, to the car sex scene, where they try to understand how a car could get so steamy. Although Titanic has been extensively discussed, what makes the episode special is the unmistakably fresh flair of fun that only Blank Check could bring, like when producer Ben Hosley, unprompted, brings them his nude drawing of Newman, or when Newman gets him to play a clip where someone yells, “Lock the gates!” amid the turmoil.
The Masked Man Show With Kevin Owens
WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens is one of the best things the sports entertainment titan’s got going right now. He’s unconventional, hilarious, athletic, and a truly nasty heel. In this interview with The Masked Man Show, however, Owens breaks character to give an honest, thoughtful interview that touches on the origins of his career, his relationships with fellow grapplers, and his journey leading to the WWE. As such, it’s certainly not intended for kayfabe loyalists, though even they may be intrigued by his stories of famed Canadian wrestler Jacques Rougeau, who made his own mark on the WWE in the ’80s and early ’90s. Owens studied under Rougeau during his early days in Quebec, and his experience was, well, complicated and a little heartbreaking. But Owens is no stranger to adversity; his body type has long made people doubt him, and the perseverance he’s shown in proving them wrong is inspirational. Still, nothing is as satisfying as Owens’ brief slip into kayfabe, when he (work) shoots on A.J. Styles, no doubt to help set up a moment or two between them at the upcoming Survivor Series. More than most, Owens is brilliant at blurring the lines between his true self and his character.
The Flop House
Independence Day: Resurgence
While tackling an inspired choice of bad movie in this summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence, The Flop House crew hits the same sweet spot that it did in its previous, also excellent episode: Dan McCoy has funny jokes and mispronounces some words, Elliott Kalan finds words that sound like other words, and Stuart Wellington is just goofing around and having a good time. It’s classic Flop House. And yet, because it’s their first recording after the election—a fact that they reference several times and one that can also almost be felt merely through the relatively deflated energy in the recording room—the entire episode is all the more significant. The Original Peaches are decidedly not pretending like nothing is wrong in the world, but instead are squaring up to face the new country that we live in, and providing solace via silliness to their listeners at a micro-level, just as they have been doing for nearly a decade now.
How To Make A Bad Decision
While the title of this episode might seem like the most unneeded advice for the country at the moment, the actual content within is useful to anyone with bad judgment or anyone who’s life is affected by someone with poor judgment, which is to say everyone. As it turns out, the human brain is not the vaunted supercomputer of flawless reason most people assume their own to be. In fact, it’s prone to scattershot bursts of illogic that are annoying at their most benign and genuinely life-threatening at their least. One of the most prominent resources for bad decisions is a phenomenon called the gambler’s fallacy, which causes our pattern-seeking brains to alter our opinions of currently observed data based upon previous, unrelated data. (A coin toss came up heads nine times in a row; what are the odds it will come up heads on the 10th flip?) In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner interviews researchers and professional decision-makers to figure out why we think the way we do and what we can do to combat it. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of talk about baseball and umpires.
Gimlet Media’s fall lineup has burst out of the gate with the star-studded Homecoming, a fictional podcast series about a shady military facility’s efforts to acclimate returning soldiers to civilian life. Case worker Heidi (Catherine Keener) works with the quiet and haunted Walter (Oscar Isaac), though her progress is stunted by her demanding superior, Colin Belfast, voiced with pitch-perfect exasperation by David Schwimmer. Temporal leaps in and out of the action add complexity and shadow to a story that will unfold in six parts, and though the first episode is only 25 minutes, it contains stunning moments of dialogue that take their time to hover in silence. When Walter tells a story about a fight he had on base, in his pauses it’s nearly possible to hear Heidi listening. As if acknowledging that the audio fiction landscape often suffers from a dearth of seasoned vocal talent, Gimlet has gone above and beyond in stocking a compelling story with Academy Award nominees—a choice whose results are immediate and striking. Wherever Homecoming is headed, listeners can already trust that these actors don’t take their project selections lightly, and that should count for a lot as we anticipate the next chapter.
[Subscribe on iTunes]
GE Podcast Theater has returned with another unbranded, subtly presented podcast following the success of its sci-fi debut, The Message. Fans of last year’s series can expect many of the same hallmarks in LifeAfter, such as the ambiguously futuristic setting and the cold, creditless episode endings so abrupt that you might suspect your headphones have failed. LifeAfter opens on Ross Barnes, a disposable FBI employee struggling to move on after the death of his wife eight months ago. Working in the social media division, he is able to tap into his late wife’s social media accounts and listen to her voice, and the incessant loops of Charlie’s recordings become shorthand for Barnes’ inability to cope. Listeners are brought to the intimate and uncomfortable places of the protagonist’s mind as he drinks too much, goes on cringe-inducing dates, and continues to send himself down a spiral of inconsolable grief. The end of episode one provides the spark that will carry the rest of the series, pivoting it toward the supernatural. But just as it did with The Message, GE offers the winking suggestion that perhaps none of this is sci-fi, or even too far off in the distance.
The Longest Shortest Time
Real Teens, REAL Babies
Over the last two decades, it seemed as though efforts to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancy had found the perfect teaching tool in the introduction of lifelike robot babies. These adorable automata were programmed to simulate parenting’s harsher realities to students tasked to care for them, crying at all hours of the day and night. The novelty of the robot babies led The Longest Shortest Time host Hillary Frank to cover the high school students participating in the program for a piece that appeared on This American Life in 2015. On this week’s episode, however, Frank finds herself revisiting that work in light of a fascinating scientific study, published earlier this year in The Lancet, questioning the efficacy of such programs. What transpires is a hearty discussion with people on both sides of the issue, from the president of the company responsible for the robot babies to the Australian scientists who conducted the study whose findings have been understandably controversial. In the end, the most heartening and thoughtful assessment of the program comes when Frank checks back in with one of the students from the original profile, who says that it helped her realize what she wanted to do in life.
If America were Revenge Of The Nerds, it would have reached the part of the film where the Alpha Betas are rushing savagely toward the Tri-Lamb house with the intent of smashing as much as possible. Now the question is, what can the nerds do to mitigate the inevitable damage before the jocks are eventually ushered away by the remarkably forgiving Adams College campus security team? That is the primary thrust of the latest episode of Point Of Inquiry, a podcast concerning science, skepticism, and all that other soon-to-be-illegal brainiac junk. Host Josh Zepps discusses the implications of a Trump administration for the country and the world with Larry Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition For America. What can non-post-truth citizens expect to endure, and what steps can be taken to counteract and fight for reason and other secular ideals. The conversation is, without a doubt, alarming—particularly the part where they outline what a nightmare this will be for the fight against climate change—but there’s also something oddly comforting in their apparent concern and resolve. It’s a nice reminder that “We Are The Champions” will play before the closing credits roll.
On this week’s episode of Reply All, hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman commit to likely their most difficult task to date, and are left with what is undoubtedly one of their most effective and enthralling episodes yet. Inspired by musician Matt Farley, Vogt and Goldman open themselves to “random human connection” with a 48-hour-straight call-in experiment, where they talk to anyone about anything. The episode itself is an hour-and-50-minute edit of those two days, but as a listening experience, it expertly communicates their restless journey of openness, weaving in and out of memorable calls and even tedious ones as their lack of sleep (specifically Goldman’s) takes over and they find themselves exhausted and overstimulated. But there are moments of beauty that seem to make it all worth it, like when a compassionate caller puts them on mute so they can take a quick nap, or when a woman plays the french horn for them, or a man standing on a dock in Michigan lets them listen to the water below him. It’s an episode that is intrinsically captivating, as it shows the hosts in a way that past episodes haven’t; it also serves as a reminder that everyone has a story to tell if someone is willing to listen. By the time the listener gets to the final call, it’s hard not to feel moved.
Vestron Video Reborn!
Horror podcast Shock Waves (and its predecessor, Killer POV) has long adopted a two-part format: an hour or so of recommendations followed by an interview with an industry titan. Now, they’ve split those parts into separate episodes, which allows more time and flexibility for both prongs of the program. And while Rob Galluzzo, Elric Kane, Ryan Turek, and Rebekah McKendry’s recommendations are always a must-listen, Shock Waves’ interview with Chela Johnson and Garo Setian of entertainment juggernaut Lionsgate is also fascinating. Johnson is behind Lionsgate’s Vestron line, a throwback to home-video pioneer Vestron Video that produces collector’s edition Blu-ray releases of cult horror titles like Chopping Mall and Blood Diner. Setian, the man behind countless movie trailers, also helps with the project and, along with Johnson, leads a conversation about physical media in the digital age and the power of nostalgia. What this Vestron line proves, along with other companies like Scream Factory and Vinegar Syndrome, is how dedicated the horror community is, perhaps more than any other subsection of the filmgoing populace, to physical media releases and building tactile movie collections. Setian’s presence also prompts the group to share their favorite horror movie trailers, which should bring back some vivid memories for those who always make sure to catch the previews.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
The Attica Prison Uprising
“Attica” is one of those words that seems to have outgrown its referential origin and become an untethered, free-floating unit of pop culture. Many people probably aren’t even aware to what they’re alluding as they allude to it. Maybe you’re aware that it originated as a rhythmic chant in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. But what’s that referring to? Well, in western New York, there’s a small town called Attica. And in that town, there’s a prison called Attica Correctional Facility. And in that prison, one of history’s most violent, fascinating, and consequential prisoner uprisings occurred in 1971. Today, nearly a half-century later, reverberations from that incident are still affecting lives. And yet, a depressingly meager portion of the population could fill you in on even the scantest of details. But the details are crazy! And eminently consumable, as far as online content goes. In this episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class (plus the one immediately preceding it), Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey lead us through the sort of quick cinematic overview of events that will certainly compel many curious listeners to continue researching the Attica Prison riot on their own.
The Ancient One
In a culture with attention spans as short as ours, it’s nice to know that somebody is willing to follow a story to its conclusion. That’s where Undone comes in. A brand-new podcast from Gimlet Media, the group behind Reply All, Undone seeks to explore the after-effects of stories or events that we’ve long forgotten about. In this episode, host Pat Walters, a Radiolab vet, focuses on a story that dates back two decades. In 1996, two teenagers found some human remains. Examination of those remains revealed that the skeleton was more than 9,000 years old, making it the oldest, nearly complete human skeleton ever found in North America. What the episode hinges on is the identity of this skeleton—is it Native American, as everybody assumed, or is it European, as some aspects of the remains hint? If the latter, it could mean that Native Americans weren’t the first people to occupy America. At the heart of the episode is a group of Native Americans who find cultural inspiration in the remains; they routinely drive hundreds of miles to visit them and perform rituals. The search for truth results in a matter of cultural identity. Walters looked into the story at the right time, too; as he was investigating, a conclusion was reached about the true identity of these bones. You won’t find a spoiler here, however.
Why Oh Why?
Just My Swipe
The latest Why Oh Why? posits itself as a must-listen right off the bat, when host Andrea Silenzi tells the story of having to conduct an interview about dildos the morning after election night. The selections culled from the interview are riddled with Silenzi’s anxious musings, and her interviewee’s straightforward responses make it that much funnier. It’s a lighter episode on the whole, which was probably necessary after both the election and the previous week’s episode, in which Silenzi heartbreakingly chronicled the recent end to her long-term relationship. The bulk of this week’s episode is taken from a live event at New York’s Kraine Theater, where Silenzi orchestrated a vintage-style dating game with a friend, Joanna, and a panel of five guys. The twist? The dudes were sourced from Tinder. The game itself is amusing, as is Silenzi’s commentary, but in traditional Why Oh Why? fashion, it’s the aftermath that turns out to be the most gripping. Joanna’s story of going out with the winning suitor pivots in an unexpected direction, resulting in a moment that serves to exemplify dating’s frustrations.
“Do you have any advice for us?”
“Advice? My advice is just to presume that everybody loves you, because at one point or another, they might.”
—PJ Vogt and his girlfriend’s dad at the start of the podcast’s 48-hour call-in experiment, Reply All