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.
The Axe Files
Sen. Bernie Sanders
There are few voices in America’s ever-shifting political landscape better suited to hosting an intimate and engaging discussion podcast than David Axelrod. As far as political strategists go, not many have risen to such great heights while maintaining as aggressively down-to-earth a persona. As the guru behind both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns Axelrod is possessed of both genuine political savvy and experience that is offset by his earnest, idiosyncratic working-class sensibility. These qualities pay dividends in Axelrod’s latest venture, The Axe Files podcast, a cheekily named production from The University Of Chicago Institute Of Politics. With this week’s inaugural episode Axelrod interviews the surprise celebrity of the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders, from the back of a van on the way to a speaking engagement. From its inception there has been something winningly shambolic about Sanders’ run for the presidency and that feeling is present in the interview as well. Axelrod works well in opening Sanders up, touching first on their uncannily parallel upbringings before moving into more serious territory, pushing back ever so slightly against the sort of fantasy run that Sanders has experienced thus far. The listener can’t help but feel that, with all his campaign experience, Axelrod’s brain is several steps ahead of Sanders’, making his line of inquiry particularly incisive. As this shapes up to be the wildest election season in the nation’s history, having Axelrod as observer will be a wonderful thing.
The Fly Vs. The Thing
There are some choices that nobody should ever been forced to make. In fact, simply considering them might prove to be too stressful for some. So many film aficionados might want to steer clear of the newest episode of The Canon, because co-hosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson conduct the most painful arbitration of the show’s 44 episode history. Two of the greatest horror/sci-fi movies of all time—1982’s The Thing and 1986’s The Fly—are pitted against one another for a single spot in the cinematic pantheon. These are two classic progenies of films that are themselves classics, both directed by veteran filmmakers (John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, respectively) working at the height of their powers. It would be hard to choose two films with more of a lasting impact on their genres in the three decades that followed, and the audience is being asked to choose between them? That’s just mean. To be fair, both Faraci and Nicholson seem fully aware of the impossibility of the task they’ve set before their audience, and they do their best to make cases for both films over the course of this hour.
Everything's Coming Up Podcast!
“The Principal And The Pauper”: John Ungaro
After six solid months of dissecting classic Simpsons episodes, hosts Allie Goertz and Julia Prescott have hit their stride, both in form and content—leaving them prepared to tackle one of the series’ most divisive episodes. “The Principal And The Pauper” was quite a departure for golden-era Simpsons, Goertz and Julia explain, as it took a well-established character (Principal Seymour Skinner) and transformed him into an imposter named Armin Tamzarian who has assumed the identity of his missing army buddy for the past 20 years. Special guest John Ungaro assists Goertz and Prescott in pointing to possible reasons that this break from Springfield’s established reality upset so many 1997 viewers, and even some Simpsons producers themselves. Who gets to decide what’s “too surreal” for an animated world? Fans of the show appear to suspend their disbelief on a sliding scale, doling out either judgment or praise for episodes like “The Principal And The Pauper” or “Homer’s Enemy” in ways that would seem arbitrary if there weren’t so much heart behind it. But these arguments wisely take a backseat to the show’s jovial analysis of the best jokes in “The Principal And The Pauper,” including a repetitive pan-out gag involving Homer, Edna, Agnes, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Grandpa, and (inexplicably) Jasper in a single station wagon.
Jessica Hopper has been writing about music since she was a teenager and self-identifying as a feminist since she was even younger. So it’s no surprise more than 20 years later that she’s not only still writing, but using the name she’s made for herself as a well-respected music critic to give a voice to women and other marginalized individuals usually ignored in the music industry. In this thorough interview, Hopper goes into detail about her childhood raised by journalist parents, struggling with her choice to continue writing instead of going to college, and her life in Chicago, from her early days as a Chicago Tribune music columnist to her current gig as editor-in-chief of the Pitchfork Review. In May, Hopper released her second book, The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, which is already on its fourth printing—a tremendous success for a book a lot of people told Hopper would never sell. Hopper also explains the aftermath of her recent tweet asking about people’s “first brush in music industry or journalism with the idea that you didn’t count.” The tweet received hundreds of responses in its first day alone, detailing personal stories from victims of sexual assault, racism, and sexist microaggressions. Hopper’s relentless efforts to shine a light on the unacceptable treatment of those marginalized in music is making it harder for the majority to ignore.
The Buck Stops Here: Jared Rutledge, Jake Owens
Although their apology could be preceded with the standard “Now that I’ve been caught…,” Jared Rutledge and Jake Owens—whose Asheville coffee shop, Waking Life, came under fire after the discovery of their misogynistic podcast, blog, and Twitter account—seem genuinely remorseful for their actions. That’s not to say they should be forgiven so soon for publicly objectifying their sexual partners, or that the reopening of Waking Life shouldn’t be met with criticism from their community. But the two small-business owners stand out from so many others who’ve adopted the Red Pill Philosophy in that they’re open to having a larger conversation about misogyny via a two-hour episode on Planet Waves. During the interview, they come clean about their scuzzy behavior, try to figure out why they transformed into such ugly people and, most importantly, speculate on a possible path to redemption, all while recognizing that none of this can be fixed overnight. However, the episode becomes somewhat troubling the more the host, astrologist Eric F. Coppolino, opens his mouth. His remarks suggest that he has entitlement issues of his own when it comes to women, and he seems to sympathize much more with Rutledge and Owens than their victims. This contrast puts “The Buck Stops Here” at odds with itself—a self-aware interview that fully acknowledges the misogyny of the manosphere while still perpetuating some awful neck-bearding.
Investigative reporting podcast Reveal wraps up a month of investigating cold case files and a haunting series of Jane and John Does with this touching and exciting episode. There are two stars of the show: an app that the radio station’s technology staff built from scratch, and amateur Polly Penwell, who with a basic setup in her Michigan home became more than a stereotypical web sleuth and managed to solve a case of a missing 15-year-old girl. Penwell’s case takes the spotlight as far as the episode’s heart goes. A woman who had once participated in a small town’s search for a young murdered girl, hearing her routine with the NamUs database and her two crime-stopping dogs is absolutely adorable. But the reveal that she solved that case and her own discovery of gifts embedded in her Asperger syndrome paint a more mature picture of a woman whose work and subculture is completely underappreciated. Reveal’s own app is thrilling too, sure, but more exciting is that in this age of distrust in police priorities and misguided internet flash mobs, there appear to be very accessible tools for intelligent individuals to bring closure to the most broken hearts. Reveal has all the soothing tones of a public radio podcast; if Serial’s dramatic drawn-out quality seems out of touch, this podcast has a much more satisfying, journalistically efficient tone.
Underneath The Eiffel Tower: Live from Largo: Scott Aukerman, Matt Gourley, Amanda Lund, Chris Tallman
It was just a matter of time before Spontaneanation would enlist Paul F. Tompkins’ beloved friend and collaborator, Scott Aukerman (of Comedy Bang! Bang!) for one of its live episodes. Tompkins shines with his always perfect intro monologue, and though this episode is chock-full of great moments and excellent guests—show favorite Matt Gourley is back with Amanda Lund, as well as improviser Chris Tallman—his moments alone are always a highlight. After Tallman tells the ridiculous story of the time he was caught by cops with a toy shotgun, the host launches into the interview portion with Aukerman, which asks what non-human living thing he would create using his rib. The interview plays more like Comedy Bang! Bang!’s “Would You Rather” segment, but the audience didn’t seem to have any complaints. Naturally, the banter between the two was great, as Aukerman ventures into the bizarre and the improvisers find themselves underneath the Eiffel Tower, where a heavily accented misadventure of pickpocketing, poison, and callbacks ensues. Unable to resist, Aukerman eventually breaks the formula and enters the story as Steve The American Baker, which was a treat to fans of his improvisational style. Spontaneanation relishes in the energy of a live audience, and these types of episodes are quickly becoming one of the show’s strengths.
Savage Love Episode 466: Kate Bornstein
One can make an argument that every episode of the Savage Lovecast is noteworthy, given its audience’s mesmerizing ability to somehow continue to present the host with a string of new problems with the world’s oldest recreational activity every week. This week’s Magnum episode is particularly noteworthy, though, as Dan Savage sits down with gender theorist Kate Bornstein to work through some fascinating and confusing issues concerning the difference between identifying as “trans” and “transgender,” the ever-shifting lexicography of the LGBTQ community, and the cultural phenomenon that is Caitlyn Jenner. As if that weren’t reason enough to listen in to the long version of the podcast, Bornstein also recounts her days as an early member of Scientology’s Sea Org and what it was like to be an adherent to a religion before it was a religion, giving insight into why L. Ron Hubbard’s teeth looked so off-putting in HBO’s Going Clear documentary. There’s still plenty to enjoy in the free micro version of the episode, including a rage-inducing introductory rant about how prudish legal authorities sex-shaming laws are literally ruining the lives of innocent young people.
When Marc Maron truly loves a guest, you can hear it in his voice. Well-deserved affection for the hilarious and talented Michaela Watkins floods this episode of WTF. Perhaps it is because of that admiration that Maron allows her the space to venture into different corners of her life, each anecdote brimming with charm and introspective narrative. Watkins is a terrific storyteller, and Maron doesn’t get in her way. It seems to just happen with wonderful give-and-take, and quickly becomes one of the most natural interviews he’s done to date. Watkins is another in a long list of guests to discuss their relationship with Saturday Night Live, and in her case, the abrupt fallout of that partnership. She details the strangely enforced social constructs forced upon the cast, likening it to middle school. But perhaps the most interesting observation is how she has seen the experience retrospectively through the lens of the podcast she was on. Having listened to Jenny Slate’s episode (the cast member who eventually replaced her) she describes it like “hearing from the woman that your boyfriend dumped you for as they’re falling in love.” The story brings Maron to tears, and is one in a series of special moments.
Josh Fadem, Armen Weitzman
Sure to be a divisive one, this episode of Who Charted? has two elements that could work against the sensibilities of the regular listener. First, Howard Kremer is out on tour, his place being filled as usual by guest host, Armen Weitzman, who listeners seem to either love or hate. Second, if the guest host wasn’t enough to throw off the natural order of the show, enter Josh Fadem, the outrageous comic who leaves no room for normalcy. He comes in hot before he’s even introduced, and shifts in and out of personas even more ridiculous than the last. It’s the most improv-heavy the show has ever gotten, with Fadem creating his own trailers over the movie chart (his ultra Bostonian Whitey Bulger via Johnny Depp for Black Mass was among the best) and generally reigning over the two hosts with his zany nature. Though they’re friends and collaborators, all of Weitzman’s attempts to make a connection with Fadem were shot down immediately, and the mayhem that ensued was pure, unfiltered instinct. Despite the minor, possible setbacks, Fadem took Who Charted? like putty in his hands and made with it what he wanted, and there’s no denying the comedic gold hidden amongst the chaos.
We see what you said there
“I don’t even want to do this episode. I feel deeply troubled on a really horrible level.”—Devin Faraci on pitting The Fly and The Thing against each other, The Canon
“I’m still the same ‘fangirl’ I was when I was 15. I just turned 39. I think critical distance is overrated. But that’s my stock and trade, I guess. I think you have to really give a shit. It really has to be your life in some ways. Music is how I understand the world. If anyone is looking for a truly humbling, painful experience, read everything you’ve ever written.”—Jessica Hopper on her music career, Longform
“I don’t say this by way of excuse, but I was the dorky kid in the fedora that had crushes on girls that were always unrequited in middle school and high school, and to get affirmation from other men—and from women—is a powerful drug. It can be a downward spiral, especially when you have another person involved and you’re encouraging each other.”—Jared Rutledge on his own misogyny, Planet Waves
“I have a new gender, and it’s ‘Little Old Lady.’ And I have a gender I’m not anymore, and that’s transgender.” — Kate Bornstein, Savage Lovecast