Lauren Lapkus (left) and Paul F. Tompkins (right) are both in the podcast Bad Reception. Scott Aukerman (center) is not.
Photo: Theo Wargo (Getty Images)

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
Bad Reception

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There is no shortage of podcasts relying on improv. Among those series that create off-the-cuff scenes and narratives, the fun is often less about the story and more about seeing what can be constructed in the moment, catching bursts of laughter when the players are entertaining themselves just as much as the listener. Bad Reception, created by comedians Eric Martin and Justin Michael, harnesses the power of some of the greatest improvisers out there (Betsy Sodaro, Lauren Lapkus, Nicole Byer, Paul F. Tompkins, and more) to spin a saga about fictional South Grampers, California, the movie theater butter capital of the world, trying to raise enough money to stay afloat. Yes, the scenes and characters are improvised, but hours of playing is cut down and edited into digestible chapters that are part of a very well-shaped—albeit ridiculous and supernatural and off-the-rails—story. One device that serves the narrative well is the use of telephone calls to introduce characters and reveal important details (much of what listeners hear are voicemails).

Even as the story takes shape, the improvised elements keep things absolutely unpredictable. Each of the 13 chapters ends with either a cliffhanger or something so absurd that it’s impossible to stop listening. And thanks to the more literary format afforded by Audible (a service currently trying to introduce “original programming” to the world of audiobooks), the nearly seven hours of this series are easy to breeze through without the normal interruptions from ads or episode breaks. Most importantly: Bad Reception is funny. The editing allows only the best moments to be featured, losing the drag of warm-up and ramp-up that plagues many comedy podcasts. It’s a production that could be setting a new precedent for the distribution and creation of entertaining audio fiction. [Brianna Wellen]


A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks: The Podcast Return

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“What year is this?” We’ve had just about a year to ponder the answer to Agent Cooper’s baffled query at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, along with many other lingering mysteries from David Lynch’s 18-hour opus, so what better time for Darren Franich and Jeff “Doc” Jensen to reunite for a discussion of their rewatch of the entire Showtime series? Topics include the disturbing lack of Emmy love for Kyle MacLachlan’s bravura turn as multiple Coopers, connections made on a second viewing (did you know that Ashley Judd’s character Beverly shares a last name with Carrie Page, the Laura Palmer doppelgänger Cooper finds in Odessa, Texas?), and of course, batshit theories about what it all means. It’s no surprise that there’s an “it was all a dream” theory—there always is—but the fun comes from Franich and Jensen gleefully wandering down blind alleys like “Is Audrey the Evolution of the Arm?” and pondering whether Cooper freed the evil version of himself from the Black Lodge on purpose as part of his larger plan. By the end, you’ll be ready for a rewatch of your own. [Scott Von Doviak]


Dead Air
Who Killed Peg?

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Likened to The Girl On The Train and Gone Girl, Serial Box’s first mystery series, Dead Air, combines “the intrigue of the true-crime podcast explosion and [those] edge-of-your-seat thrillers.” Written by Gwenda Bond, Carrie Ryan, and Rachel Caine, Dead Air is actually a serial novel available to read or listen to weekly, while the podcast is protagonist Mackenzie Walker’s college radio show, which she has taken to using as a tool to solve a decades-old murder. But the clock is ticking as Walker discovers that the closer she gets to uncovering the truth, the more threats on her own life she receives. Offering a “uniquely immersive experience,” the authors implore listeners to question whether “the truth lies in the serial, the podcast… or somewhere in-between.” Only two episodes in and this supplemental podcast is highly captivating, pulling listeners even further into Walker’s world and elevating the overall story. [Becca James]


Mothers Of Invention
Taking Over

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In the face of a global climate crisis it’s easy to feel pessimistic, frustrated, and utterly powerless. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear a podcast like Mothers Of Invention that’s all about people finding practical, tangible solutions to combat climate change. Add to that the fact that each episode specifically highlights women in a field inundated with male perspectives and you’ve got a podcast that’s a damn delight to listen to. For their third official episode, comedian Maeve Higgins and former Irish president Mary Robinson tackle an issue currently on the forefront of all environmental discussions: single-use plastic. While hoards of online commenters are happy to squabble over the effectiveness of a straw ban, Higgins and Robinson would rather consult the experts, like British entrepreneur Sian Sutherland, who is designing the first plastic-free grocery aisle, or American engineer Chelsea Briganti, who is leading the way in a newly formed edible bioplastics industry. The best part of all these conversations is the hosts’ awareness that solutions to climate change need to be easy for everyone to adopt, regardless of their financial situation. Saving the planet can’t just be for the rich. [Dan Neilan]


The Comedians Of Wrestling
SummerSlam & SummerSlamTacular Fallout

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Podcasts are a great source for discovering blind spots in pop culture where nerdy fandoms overlap. As evidenced by Upright Citizens Brigade comedian Dan Black’s informative and extra-caffeinated show, way more comics follow the contemporary professional wrestling scene than a lot of folks might have realized. It’s not hard to see why: deity-like entrances, complex character-building, conflicting story arcs, crowd work—it’s spectacular meathead theatrics. After a rundown of his recent live shows (including one featuring wrestlers trying their hands at stand-up and steamrolling blinking red lights to deliver full 15-minute sets), Black and co-host Alex Newman break down the 2018 WWE SummerSlam. Interestingly, much of the conversation highlights challenges inherent in the parallel spectacles of what viewers experience through their TVs versus the live, in-the-room event (the absence of pyrotechnics, Black argues, lets the air out of both). The breakdown gets as minute as a critical analysis of ramps, and as entertainingly tangential as an outline for a TV series where Donald Trump gets convicted and sentenced to prison, yet remains president. [Dan Jakes]


The Land Of Desire
The History Of Champagne

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A Francophile exiled in San Francisco composes lush lettres d’amour to French history and culture. To celebrate her show’s second anniversary, she uncorks the story of champagne, pulverizing the drink’s foundational myths in the process. Champagne was not invented by abbot Dom Pérignon, who might have been a pioneering vintner but despised bubbles in his brews. Nor is champagne prized for a complex taste; the host compares it to both Kraft singles and Britney Spears. Rather, it’s become a historical success thanks to a little tech and a lot of marketing. Carbonated wine has always occurred naturally under certain conditions, but it wasn’t until the early 18th century that the drink become desirable enough to cultivate. The taste caught on in courts across Europe, bestowing the beverage with the intoxicating allure of money and class—Peter the Great’s daughter is said to have invented the champagne toast. Production, however, was a problem, as the brittle glass bottles holding the wine tended to explode during warm weather. The English solved that problem by creating thicker glass using coal fires, and the following century brought advances in transportation, distribution, and sales that created champagne’s current status as a mass-market party stable. [Zach Brooke]


The Longest Shortest Time
Becoming A Single Dad While Trans

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The Longest Shortest Time has long been the parenting podcast to which all others should aspire. The biggest factor has been the way the show approaches its subject: treating childbirth, rearing, and all the sundry things in their orbit as a culture rather than a biological imperative. In this way, the podcast subverts the need to be useful or comprehensive, a demand traditionally imposed on the parenting genre. Instead it is a program telling unique human stories loosely arranged around a theme. To its credit, the show has undergone a critical overhaul of its personnel this year without losing any of its voice or import, as creator and host Hillary Frank passed the torch to Andrea Silenzi of beloved dating podcast Why Oh Why?. This week’s excellent episode is further proof of the vast array of parenting stories waiting to be told, as Silenzi interviews non-binary trans person CJ Kemal about their lifelong desire to become a dad, eventually deciding to go it alone. The episode touches on so many important topics within the context of Kemal’s journey toward single trans parenthood in an accessible and entertaining fashion, making it an easy recommendation. [Ben Cannon]


Up And Vanished
Stay On The Trail

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What started as a true-crime documentary by Atlanta filmmaker Payne Lindsey quickly turned into the popular podcast Up And Vanished. The first season followed the missing-person case of Tina Grinstead from Payne’s home state of Georgia and reignited so much interest in the 2005 cold case that it resulted in two arrests. Now season two has arrived, this time concentrating on Kristal Anne Reisinger, who went missing around July 13, 2016 while attending a drum circle where she lived in Crestone, Colorado. Contributing to the already crowded female-focused true-crime genre, Up And Vanished rises above the rest by humanizing its subject with a plethora of earnest voices spanning the emotional spectrum. And although it’s a high bar to clear, after the success of the first season, the second brings with it an inherent sense of hope. [Becca James]