Photo: Gary Hershorn (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.


Caliphate
The Mission/The Reporter/Recruitment

Two and a half episodes in, and The New York Times’ ambient, immersive, and ambitious podcast about the workings of ISIS is vivisecting the deadliest cell on the planet. The cold open of the show’s prologue offers an ISIS member’s rationale for all the killing he’s ordered to perform. It’s the same justification that was used in the beheading of journalist James Foley four years ago, which introduced the horrors of ISIS to many in the west, even though the war on terror was by then more than a decade old. There are more terrorists now than there were before we started, notes reporter Rukmini Callimachi, narrator and chief subject of Caliphate. The first full show finds her using trash bags to sack up ISIS’s leftovers moments after a stronghold has been fled. Callimachi also talks about the threats against her life, both the laughable, puerile online versions and the credible warnings delivered in person by the FBI. Episode two follows her to Canada, where she meets an ISIS recruit she found on Instagram who is jarringly normal aside from his radicalization, a process methodically recapped here. These are deep waters, flowing directly to the mouth of civilizational conflict. [Zach Brooke]


Distraction Pieces
Jess Thom (Tourettes Hero)

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This past week saw the 200th episode of Distraction Pieces, British musician Scroobius Pip’s delightfully eclectic interview podcast, and it was a wonderful curveball from a show that already throws a lot of them. Instead of sitting down with a big celebrity to mark the occasion (as is often his wont), Pip spent this milestone interviewing Jess Thom, an actress, comedian, and activist with Tourette’s. As Pip notes in the episode intro, there’s a sense of poetic balance to their conversation, as he is afflicted with a stutter and she with vocal tics; he can’t always get out the words that he wants, while she can’t stop herself from saying words that she doesn’t. The pair have a lively conversation full of humor and empathy. The meat of their chat covers Thom’s career path, but it is at its most salient when they touch upon her mission of making live theater a more accessible and inclusive space for people with disabilities, performers and audience members alike. It’s a conversation of both tremendous fun and import, and one that isn’t being had anywhere else. [Ben Cannon]


Ethnically Ambiguous
We Are Syria

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Attacks on Syria dominated the news cycle for a few short days, and everyone who had access to social media spread their opinion on the joint tactics of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. What hosts Anna Hossnieh and Shereen Lani Younes are here to do is provide their own perspective as Middle Eastern women and give the facts surrounding the conflict in Syria in a digestible way. Despite the serious subject, Hossnieh and Younes maintain a lighthearted tone throughout. Ethnically Ambiguous focuses on being a minority in America, and while that’s not always the easiest subject to discuss, the duo’s opinions and experiences are accessible and, at times, extremely funny. They never claim to be experts; they’re simply trying to figure out the details like the rest of us. What they do provide is personal context for the complicated issues facing certain parts of our world. In this episode in particular, Younes is made vulnerable because of her connection to the issue at hand, and global politics suddenly feel more compelling and emotional than they would through any other medium. [Brianna Wellen]


Gone
Oliver Cromwell’s Missing Head

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Everyone has lost something before, and the panicked feeling that something is seemingly gone forever is universal. What varies drastically, though, is how long an individual will spend looking for what they can’t seem to find. A few hours? A hundred years? Gone, a new Parcast podcast, leans toward the latter with its persistent mission to search for everything lost, from D.B. Cooper to the Amber Room. This week, the crew is after Oliver Cromwell, or more accurately, his head. A key player in ousting the monarchy, Cromwell served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 until his death. Shortly after, the monarchy was restored, and Cromwell’s corpse was dug up, his head was cut off, and it was displayed atop Westminster Abbey—that is, until it vanished in the late 1600s. Follow along with this fascinating story as Gone proves that “just because something is gone doesn’t mean it can’t be found.” [Becca James]


How It Is
Our Anger

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Hosted by Diane Guerrero (Jane The Virgin, Orange Is The New Black) and produced by Reese Witherspoon, How It Is strives to give women a platform to tell their own stories in their own words, sharing what they’ve learned and lived through. Inspired by #MeToo, Time’s Up, and “the shifting balance of power,” the first episode posits that while anger can be destructive, “it can be constructive, too.” Featuring journalist Rebecca Traister, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and actor Gabrielle Union, the debut of this vignette-style show packs a punch. Witherspoon drops by up top to share her experience with anger at what she’s left unsaid, to which Guerrero replies that all her life she hasn’t been allowed to be angry. It’s a statement that will resonate with many, especially when she goes deeper and comments on how she’s been silenced by the stereotype of the “hot-headed Latina.” The rest of the podcast flows much the same way by introducing topical jumping-off points and then delving further into the personal experiences behind them, offering an enlightening listen. [Becca James]


Ologies
Fearology Part 1 (FEAR) with Mary Poffenroth

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Ologies is a nifty indie science-based podcast that spends each episode overviewing a different field with the help of a leading researcher working in that discipline. This week’s conversation with credentialed fearologist Mary Poffenroth turned out to be dense and thrilling enough to merit an upcoming sequel. She must have dug deep to fill an entire separate episode with more fear science, because the conversation in part one is already broad and dense. It turns out people who study emotions have concluded that humans only have four feelings: happiness, sadness, anger/disgust, and surprise/fear. Fear goes by many names—common mood descriptors include “stress” and “insecurity,” for example—but they all elicit the same reaction. One distinction is whether fears are factual or fictional, roughly the difference between being mugged at gunpoint versus speaking in public. (A further distinction filters out all phobias, which are irrational and several steps beyond what’s being discussed here.) Poffenroth argues that because fears are so universal, it’s worthless to tell people to be fearless, equating it to telling people to never be thirsty. But she does offer strategies you can employ to recognize and deal with fictional fears in brave and healthy ways. [Zach Brooke]


Scream 101
2018 Horror Month #3: Winchester

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In every episode of Scream 101, host and horror buff Brennan Klein is joined by co-host (and non-horror-buff) Sergio Huerta to discuss horror movies from different subgenres. After providing a brief synopsis and spoiler warning, the two get right to their discussion of Winchester. Klein is far less enamored of the 2018 Helen Mirren vehicle than Huerta, especially since the real story of the Winchester manor is pretty interesting in itself. With a great ’80s-horror-vibed theme song—“A Beat For You” by Pseudo Echo—to set the mood, the two hosts have a relaxed, colloquial rapport, underscored by a thorough familiarity with the genre (Klein is a contributor to Dread Central) and stage theater as well. While they enjoyed of some of the jump scares and some minor, subtle subversions of expectation, the hosts ultimately find themselves skeptical of the movie’s merits and rate it as such. Genre fans will enjoy giving Scream 101 a listen and making use of the podcast’s review system to see if a movie like Winchester is worth their time. [Jose Nateras]


The Bechdel Cast
She’s All That With Anna Hossnieh

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This week Jamie Loftus and Caitlin Durante crack open some Mike’s Hard Lemonades to finally get to the bottom of whether or not glasses and a ponytail are the mark of a feminist icon. While tackling the classic ’90s high school rom-com She’s All That, the hosts discern why women still love this story despite the painfully obvious flaws in its portrayal of teenage girls and their relationships with boys and each other. The Bechdel Cast succeeds by breaking down why certain high school movie tropes are so problematic while still finding redeeming qualities in each one and reassuring listeners and themselves that it’s okay to enjoy the film in question. It’s been interesting to see how, over the course of this podcast’s 18-month run, Loftus and Durante have adjusted their personal interpretations of the Bechdel Test to address even more stereotypes of women and women-identifying characters in movies; many female characters discuss shopping and domestic work to excess, too, not just the topic of men. But just as important is how the hosts refuse to be shamed for the types of stories they enjoy, which sometimes is a romantic comedy with a bet at the center of the plot. [Brianna Wellen]


The Rhino Podcast
The Cars

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As the opening states, The Rhino Podcast is for “ladies and gentleman, record geeks, retired plate spinners, and millennials who want to impress their parents with their record collections.” This week, Ric Ocasek stops by to talk about the brand-new remasters of The Cars’ second and third albums, Candy-O and Panorama. The year 1979 was a very different time in the record industry, with the band releasing its second record only a year after its debut, which was still doing well on the charts. Panorama hit shelves only 14 months after that; Ocasek explains that the band simply wanted to add new songs to the setlist while on tour and had the material ready to go. Ocasek also reflects on coming to terms with the fact that he was a terrific pop songwriter despite listening to more avant-garde bands himself. On the subject of the angrier, weirder Panorama and whether or not he was concerned about fan backlash, Ocasek muses that he was “surprised they had any kind of hit.” The back half of the episode features reissue producer John Hughes to preview some of the bonus material included on these new releases, including artwork from Cars drummer David Robinson. [Mike Vanderbilt]


Weather Geeks
Jim Cantore — The Life Of A Storm Tracker

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Conversation about the weather is a cliché stand-in for mundanity. Usually, though, the people talking about it aren’t describing the ecstasy of hearing thunder snow erupt above their head, the terror of experiencing a lightning strike from 10 feet away, or the dread of watching flood waters rise 20 feet above sea level to invade their shelter. That’s what it’s like talking about the weather with Jim Cantore, on-air meteorologist and one the most passionate storm trackers you’ll ever have the pleasure to hear geek out over their life’s work. In this inaugural episode of The Weather Channel’s rebooted podcast, host Dr. Marshall Shepherd talks to Cantore about the highlights and close calls of a 30-year career observing and reporting on nature at its most violent. Two articulate people in enthusiastic discussion about something they both know and care a lot about is almost always good listening. More so now, after the extremely eventful year we’ve endured beneath the atmosphere’s dark clouds. [Dennis DiClaudio]