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.
BuzzFeed's Internet Explorer
What Happens When The Internet Tries To Solve A Murder: Katie J. M. Baker
A far cry from the mainstream acceptance toward Serial’s listening community, this week Internet Explorer delves into the strange, sad world of murder mystery enthusiasts centered around teenage car fire victim Jessica Chambers of Courtland, Mississippi. After Chambers uttered her pointed last words—“Eric did this to me.”—to first responders, investigators still came up empty and waves of follow-ups came from conservative blogs eager to blame black-on-white racial tension, liberal blogs aiming to discredit that, and, finally, Facebook weirdos looking to stave off boredom on their house boats. Ryan Broderick and Katie Notopoulos welcome reporter Katie J. M. Baker, whose excellent piece on the cult of the Courtland murder caught their attention, to expand on the case’s appeal. Chiefly bizarre among Baker’s revelations is the reality that many of those closely affected by the crime, including Chambers’s own mother Lisa Daugherty, remain active parts of these sleuthing groups—some of which are private in order to keep out legitimate suspects, Baker presumes—mostly to continually clear their own names against the anonymous horde. Broderick and Notopoulos use their keen sense of internet history to place Courtland in perspective in relation to amateur probes against Adnan Syed and the then-unidentified Boston Marathon bomber, though they end the program just early enough to whet even more appetites to the controversy.
For those of a certain era, there are few films that absolutely demanded to be sought out more than Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s dystopian bottle episode of a film predicated on the blood sport of teens murdering other teens. Once held aloft as the gold-standard for modern-day taboo films, spoken about in reverently hushed tones and traded in secret on janky VCDs and DVD-Rs, the film still holds up despite its luster having been dulled slightly by its more famous imitators, such as The Hunger Games. Because of the status imbued in the film it is a treat to hear it intelligently dissected by The Canon hosts Amy Nicholson and Devin Faraci, who bring several new layers of backstory and interpretation to the table. This includes an amazing anecdote about how Fukasaku’s handling of the material was influenced by his horrendous experiences in a Japanese munitions plant during World War II. Though one of the show’s strongest aspects is how Nicholson and Faraci are able to discard politeness during their discussions, the episode is light on verbal altercations, with the hosts in agreement regarding Battle Royale’s merits. Do not despair, as there is still a frisson of tension to be found percolating whenever the the largely unnecessary extended edition of the film is brought up.
The Duncan Trussell Family Hour
For all of his mainstream ubiquity at the moment, Marc Maron’s presence in the wider world of podcasting is often kept specifically anchored inside of his garage with only a few short appearances on other shows when news warrants. Such a comparative absence from the guest chair is precisely what makes this week’s episode of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour feel like such a big deal, as Trussell hosts Maron in a long, freeform conversation that sees Trussell putting his own playful spin on the dynamic. Trussell is a truly gifted conversationalist, deeply intelligent yet fully invested in exploring esotericism, with a Loki-like sense of humor, all of which serves to make his interviews some of the most interesting and curveball-filled in the podcasting arena. The presidential interview looms large in Trussell’s conversation with Maron, and for good reason. The monumental scope of the situation is not lost on either. The pair gets into several deep discussions of heady ideas such as the moral justification of civilian death through drone strikes, what fame really looks like, and the “demon of entropy.” The episode is one that deftly straddles humor and big issues, much like the pair in conversation.
Professional wrestling can be hard to get into. WWE, which pumps out roughly six hours of fresh content a week, can be really hard to get into. There’s the extensive vocabulary, for one, not to mention the vast roster of established personalities and a decades-deep wealth of history that continually informs the current product. Knowing it can be overwhelming, Irish comedian and lifelong wrestling fan Kefin Mahon started How2Wrestling as a means to educate new fans, such as his co-host (and girlfriend), Joanna Graham, in the intricacies of sports entertainment. There’s only two episodes available thus far, but Mahon’s fluid mic skills (he also co-hosts the excellent Attitude Era Podcast) and Graham’s dry wit mesh well with the podcast’s practical format. In each episode, the duo will focus on a single wrestler or event, which they’ll then use as a lens to explore a particular era in the business. John Cena, the subject of episode two, is ideal for this purpose, as he represents so much of what wrestling fans both love and hate about WWE. Since 2004, Cena’s had a hand in just about every one of WWE’s endeavors—wrestling, charity, film, reality TV—and Mahon and Graham deftly chart his 11-year journey from white boy rapper to celebrated babyface to despised champion to company workhorse. It’s entertaining stuff, and could very well be the nudge your significant other needs to step into the squared circle with you.
The Infinite Monkey Cage
USA Tour: New York: Bill Nye The Science Guy, Janna Levin, Tim Daly, Lisa Lampanelli
This past winter, Infinite Monkey Cage co-hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox toured the U.S. and recorded half a dozen shows live. The first of these has all the charm of the usual U.K. podcasts, but with some names more familiar to U.S. audiences, including Tim Daly and Lisa Lampanelli (the latter of whom is a bit under-used). The episode is a controlled meander through the search for other life in the universe and whether we could divert or deflect a meteor hurtling toward Earth. (Short answer: Depends on how much notice we have.) They also talk at some length about what it would mean to find life elsewhere in the universe, a provocative discussion that should linger in listeners’ minds beyond the 30 minutes of the podcast. Ince and Cox ask their panel—which includes an astrophysicist, a Science Guy, an actor, and a stand-up—whether we should fund science for the sake of science. Tim Daly’s answer in particular earns some applause, and it’s an affirming moment for what the podcast does best: finding intersections of science and pop culture.
[Laura M. Browning]
The Bodybuilders: Tim Cannon, Frank Swain
A speculative podcast from the tech and science writers at Gizmodo, Meanwhile In The Future posits that things will change drastically at a fixed date in the next century. And this week that has everything to do with sculpting one’s physique with more than just muscles. Body implant technology is already so very nearly here, with the most inconvenient part of Google Wallet being that one can’t simply wave one’s hand. The podcast invites Tim Cannon, an expert in 2015’s body modification technology who wants to be his own spaceship or woman or perhaps a genderless spiral of wheels, to dream how fancy we can make ourselves. The fixed date of 2065 allows Cannon to get quite confident. Though the most impressive thing he currently has made for himself is a chip in his skin that informs a nearby thermostat, he believes that we will only be “60 percent meat” soon. And while recreational use may never get as daffy and well-funded as the podcast’s fake commercials or Cannon’s cyberpunk fantasies may want to believe, it appears that medical use will quickly get humans halfway there. Second guest Frank Swain is a medical journalist who has his own pair of powerful hearing aids that detect wi-fi, and he seems confident that specialists are coming. It’s only a matter of whether laws for elective surgery will keep up with cures for diabetes.
50 Shades Of Awkward: Joan
When she wrote her erotic novel The Never-ending Romance at the age of 12, the extent Joan Franzino’s knowledge of sex came from one dinner table conversation with her parents. And it shows, in the best way possible. Her novel is about the romance between Rachel, a Corvette-driving ninth grader with a waterbed, and her boyfriend Tom, and is the kind of clueless masterpiece that can only come from the mind of a curious, Judy Blume-obsessed sixth grader. There’s a total lack of understanding of the mechanics and language of sex; Rachel, apparently an expert gymnast, is constantly encouraged to spread her legs as far as she can, one time so Tom could give her “a fellatio.” This sort of misguided earnestness—the hallmark of all great Mortified pieces—reaches its apex when Rachel visits the gynecologist, another experience that 12-year-old Franzino had only heard about from her mother (again, it shows). In the post-reading interview, Franzino talks about how her mom had to stifle tears of laughter when she found The Never-ending Romance hidden in her mattress, a discovery that resulted in a much-needed talk about the realities of sex.
Wendy Zukerman is a science journalist who delights in pulling apart whatever the latest fad is, and this episode rips vaping to shreds. Starting with an interview with an e-cigarette executive, it quickly spirals into startling facts about the high number of students who vape, “vapologists” (which Zukerman asserts is, in at least two different ways, not even a real thing), and the myth that one is actually inhaling vapor at all. The massive amount of chemicals inhaled is just as dangerous as that in a cigarette, if not more so due to the loose regulations. Since it was previously ridiculous to inhale a “flavor,” the flavors are made with products that have only been proven to be safe when consumed like food and not inhaled. For instance, a popular buttery additive in vaping fluid can cause a disease called “popcorn worker’s lung,” and ultra-fine particles of metal can go right from the lungs into the bloodstream. Zukerman ends up being forced to admit to a bit of a draw, however. The prolonged effects of e cigarettes are vastly undocumented compared to a century of tobacco cigarette science, and there is no way of knowing whether someone who quit smoking traditional cigarettes and switches to vaping ends up with a negative consequence from the former or the latter. But it is certainly the wild West of addictive substances, with huge swarms of young people trying something that will, if scientific speculation is correct, end up doing nasty things.
A Scottish Cure For Cancer?
With podcasts becoming increasingly ambitious in how intense, produced, and bizarre they can get, Scienceology sets itself apart by focusing on how to make one joke stick. Starting with a tease that essentially gives away the punchline, it spends two to three minutes building up to that punchline again. Then just as quickly as it began it’s over. This particular episode takes the well-trod path of “you can’t understand someone with a Scottish accent” and pummels the premise for all its worth, giving the Scottish scientist a mouthful of cancerous vocabulary to blend in with gibberish and non-sequiturs in a highly scripted series. The fake journalist, Sienna Jafari O’Neill as played by Kassia Miller, explores the depths of sad irony by asking increasingly delicate and poignant questions, only to receive a despairingly nonsensical response that for some reason only she can understand. And there is no classic “punchline,” really; each episode stands alone as a beat-for-beat news item, ending with a statement that begins to declare “and as always…” only to segue into a never-before-done riff. Created by John Harris and Matt Klinman, there has been episodes thus far about how eels can make you come hard, soup, and whether women can be scientists, making future possibilities for this podcast seemingly endless.
Although society still has quite a way to go, it has, as a whole, become much more accepting of transgender individuals over the past few years. Even so, there are still plenty of awkward moments that arise when discussing transgender culture, even if you’re a liberal comedian like Marc Maron. He points this out while introducing his chat with Laura Jane Grace—the Against Me! singer who publicly came out as a woman in 2012—and the interview that follows is one that’s admirable for its tension as much as its open-mindedness. It’s not that Grace ever gets mad at Maron, but she does laugh at him whenever he talks about her transformation like it’s some sort of mystical, hippy-dippy process. Just because Maron accepts Grace doesn’t mean he fully understands her world. He’s trying to, however, and that’s what matters and makes for a conversation that finds two very different people navigating the waters of a tricky subject. That alone takes their conversation from entertainment to importance.
You Made It Weird
Master conversationalist and pseudo-mystic Pete Holmes once again mines an absolute delight of an interview from of a subject who delicately parses out any chatter of “myth” and “ritual.” Jimmy Kimmel gives an infectiously warm account of his origin story and a lot of family stories—boy oh boy are there a number of family stories. Let it be said, however, that all of these stories leave Holmes and producer Katie Levine doubled over with laughter and are told with such lovely candor that the listener cannot help but devour the joy. With such gentle geniality, it’s easy to forget that Kimmel is a pantheon level late night host who’s been at it for decades. Listening to Kimmel recount his evolution from radio to television is fascinating and leads the pair to ponder the prognoses for future broadcast hopefuls in the freewheeling world of podcasts. It’s also a delight to hear such a charming person describe exactly what makes him laugh. The listener will surely feel included in the warm cheer that Kimmel brought to the room this day.
“We have this show in America that is ridiculous and horrible. It’s five women yammering on ABC called The View. It should be called The Rear View because they’re talking out of their ass all the time.” —Lisa Lampanelli on Sherri Shepherd’s belief that the world could be flat, The Infinite Monkey Cage
“If you want the dark, cyberpunk, dystopic term that gets thrown around a lot… it’s flesh mechanic.”—Body modification aficionado Tim Cannon on how he sees the future of body modification, Meanwhile In The Future