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 email@example.com.
A Podmass Series Spotlight
Love + Radio
Last month saw the start of Love + Radio’s seventh season. Nick van der Kolk’s podcast is known for its in-depth and expertly produced interviews that cover “an eclectic range of subjects, from the seedy to the sublime.” Even before it found a permanent home at Radiotopia in 2014, Love + Radio was an award-winning podcast, recognized by Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2011, 2013, and 2015 for “The Wisdom Of Jay Thunderbolt,” “Jack And Ellen” and “The Living Room,” respectively. It was also the first podcast to win Third Coast’s Gold prize for best documentary, with “The Wisdom Of Jay Thunderbolt.”
“The Wisdom Of Jay Thunderbolt” reveals the man behind a rather strange business card, which simply reads “Thunderbolt—Party Naked,” with an accompanying phone number. The episode focuses on an interview with the stay-at-home strip club manager responsible for the card, and Love + Radio’s engrossing storytelling is buoyed by high production value. Thunderbolt’s opening reflection that being white has allowed him special reprieve from law enforcement will pique listeners’ curiosity.
The curiosity continues with 2013’s twist-heavy “Jack And Ellen,” which essentially offers step-by-step instructions on pedo-baiting, or catfishing pedophiles for the purpose of blackmailing them. (Unsurprisingly, it involves faking an interest in the work of J.D. Salinger.) Jack and Ellen navigate the emotional and moral consequences of their highly lucrative actions as the microphones follow along.
“The Living Room,” meanwhile, is a meta experience. Diane’s obsessive—and one-sided—relationship with her new neighbors, who are in the habit of leaving their curtains open, reflects listeners’ own voyeurism. This intimate portrait of life and death showcases what Love + Radio continues to do best: It finds where the everyday merges with the extraordinary, and how that can transform the lives of others into remarkable vignettes. [Becca James]
Black A$$ Podcast
“Listen, nobody has gone to Donald Trump and gotten anything done besides taking a picture and looking stupid.” Hadiyah Robinson always begins Black A$$ Podcast bursting with things to get off her chest, and listeners need only buckle up and start nodding in agreement. Robinson, a seasoned stand-up, eschews guest hosts to take center stage with her confident soliloquy, prodding at the tragic and the frustrating. She starts out “Cancelled AF” addressing a largely overlooked aspect of Starbucks’ recent diversity training: Must we patronize Starbucks in the first place? With her apt comparison of Starbucks sandwiches (on their “scalding-hot, dry-ass bread”) to a piece of biscotti, she has one hell of a point. Robinson makes herself laugh, sometimes hysterically, like her observations are just catching up with her, and catching her by surprise; other times, she almost runs out of breath finding metaphor after metaphor to underpin her thoughts, charging forward to the conclusion at lightning speed. She never lets her righteous anger rob her of opportunities for humor; instead, she remains resolutely herself, the one you come to the table for. She’s venting, but for all of us. And listeners will feel like they’ve enjoyed their own catharsis, too. [Marnie Shure]
Parker the Jock (w/ Brady O’Callahan)
Created and performed by Brooklyn-based comedian and performance artist Tim Platt, Hampton High is a podcast run by “high school junior Hampton McKelvey.” Each episode, the fictional teenager interviews various students and staff at Rockville Prep; Platt’s Hampton is joined this week by a football player named Parker (fellow improviser Brady O’Callahan). The comedy of Hampton High is far more grounded than one might expect, finding humor in the subversion of whatever expectations listeners might have about the archetypal characters being interviewed. When Parker “the jock” discusses his concerns regarding the risk of brain damage among football players, and proceeds to criticize capitalism, it’s funny not only because it’s an unexpected perspective coming from this character, but because O’Callahan juxtaposes these thoughts with jarring youthful vocalization. In a world where it’s becoming increasingly clear that young activists have important and well-informed voices and are actual agents of much-needed change, a subtle and hilarious criticism arises from these adult performers playing what could be considered caricatures of teenagers—but infusing them with opinions that give them unexpected breadth and dimension. [Jose Nateras]
Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers
Back To The Future, 1985
The hosts of Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers are excited and admittedly nervous whenever they tackle one of “the big ones.” This week, Dion Baia and J. Blake go back in time to 1985 to discuss Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Back To The Future, arguably the funniest film about implied incest. There’s lots of gushing on this episode but, c’mon, it’s Back To The Future! The centerpiece of the discussion is the script, which J. Blake describes as “tight as a drum,” providing setups and payoffs around every corner. Of course the unused Eric Stoltz footage is a topic of discussion, as well as Dean Cundey’s smart use of photography to differentiate the ’80s from the ’50s, and the proposed casting of Ralph Macchio and John Lithgow as the leads, but some of the most fun comes when the hosts explore the relationship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly. [Mike Vanderbilt]
The Winding Road
If you thought This American Life’s “Five Women” (which Podmass previously recommended) was good, settle in for She Says. Taking a similarly honest and enlightening look at the #MeToo movement, reporter Sarah Delia of WFAE (Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR station) supports female voices in this eight-episode series that tries to understand the case of “‘Linda,’ a Charlotte-area woman who was sexually assaulted by a stranger in 2015… and is still struggling to find answers.” Over the course of a year, through interviews with Linda, detectives, forensic scientists, and other survivors, She Says offers a closer look at the criminal justice system’s approach to sexual assault cases. “The Winding Road” takes listeners back to the beginning, back to the night of Linda’s assault—from Linda’s perspective only. That’s important, and sets the tone for believing women, which Linda discovers isn’t necessarily the default position in the law enforcement community that repeatedly lets her down. [Becca James]
The third season of beloved CBC podcast Sleepover is an object lesson in how to dramatically evolve a show’s impact with only minor tweaks to its core concept. Over the show’s previous two seasons, host Sook-Yin Lee’s winningly idiosyncratic approach has been to engender empathy among a disparate trio of strangers through the series’ titular overnight where they attempt to solve one another’s problems. This time around, a fourth member is added in the form of the location itself, as Lee and her team seek to connect Canadian institutions with the people directly affected by them. It is a rather brilliant move, making it suddenly a work of site-specific audio while also giving a brand-new level of depth to its already rich discussions. The first four episodes of the new season focus on Toronto’s Native Child and Family Services, with three young people whose lives have each been impacted by the institution sleeping over inside of it. One of the more interesting aspects of the new format is that listeners start by getting an inside look at the mission of the institution, which is later contrasted with the anecdotes of the people it is meant to help. [Ben Cannon]
Side Effects of White Women
There are a lot of difficult truths to discuss in 2018, but doing so doesn’t have to be dreary: Amanda Seales uses her upbeat energy to make tackling issues like problematic white women entertaining and engaging. In this episode, Seales calls out the subtle (and not so subtle) offensive behaviors of white women, gives advice to people of color on how to preserve their energy and thrive in oppressive environments, and offers examples of how people can use their privilege to confront problematic behavior and uplift others who aren’t given the same opportunity. While answering listener questions, Seales touches on interracial relationships and how people of color are often respected for their work and talents but aren’t given the same respect in intimate friendships. This series not only analyzes the problem from a variety of perspectives, but suggests actions so that it’s no longer just about repeating talking points, but actually putting change in motion. Those actions can be as simple expanding what you read or watch on television in order to expose yourself to a different culture. Small Doses is all about the tiny changes that can be made to create a healthier world for everyone. [Brianna Wellen]
I Am A White Woman
Though it has all the trappings of the Gimlet Media formula—introductory segments that hover between scripted and conversational; systematized music cues; strategically placed and executed ad breaks—The Nod continues to set itself apart from the current spate of “fun fact” programming across the podcast landscape, defying categorization. This week’s episode is a shining example of hosts Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings pulling on whatever threads intrigue and delight them most, betting (correctly) that listeners will feel the same way. In this case, Luse presents her formal treatise on why the oft-maligned 2004 Wayans Brothers film White Chicks deserves its place in the Criterion Collection of “important classic and contemporary films.” What begins as a joke eventually morphs, by Reason #3 of Luse’s outline, into a very cogent defense of the screwball comedy’s approach to racism and its surprising transmutation of the “black men in drag” trope. Eddings is captivated and highly amused by these arguments, starting out skeptical but prepared to be convinced. Whether or not Luse can convert him is almost beside the point; listeners will be shocked by their own shifting perspective on a movie many of us wrote off years ago. [Marnie Shure]
The RFK Tapes
June 5, 1968
Depending on your mindset, we’re living in either the zenith or nadir of conspiracy theories. Tales of the “deep state” and artificially created gay frogs are at meme-level awareness on social media, and our current president spent a good chunk of the start of this decade questioning the authenticity of his predecessor’s birth certificate. Into this milieu drops a new show about the Kennedy assassination—the other Kennedy assassination. The killing of JFK’s brother Robert, who died 50 years ago last week on the eve of an important electoral victory. Assembled by the same team responsible for the hit podcast Crimetown and the HBO documentary series The Jinx, The RFK Tapes is driven by researcher William Klaber, who’s studied case files for decades. There are a lot. Law enforcement, clearly thinking about the nagging doubts surrounding the outcome of the last Kennedy assassination, amassed a mountain of evidence pointing at gunman Sirhan Sirhan, who not only survived to go to trial but testified in his own defense. Klaber’s alternative explanation hinges on “hypno-programming” and “robot assassins.” It’s enough to exhaust most patient skeptics, yet Klaber is operating on a wavelength similar to that of RFK’s own son. Who fucking knows? [Zach Brooke]