This week we’re letting loose with some absurdly hilarious new shows (and one about public housing)!
In the years since Serial debuted it has felt at times like true crime shows are the engine driving overall podcast popularity. While the trend towards these programs is understandable, I don’t exactly think it is the best way forward. There is something about turning death into lurid entertainment that just strikes me as being somewhat wrong. I don’t think that it’s puritanically motivated, more that it finds podcasting falling into that age-old media trap of “if it bleeds, it leads,” and there are just so many more interesting avenues to explore.
Which is why A Very Fatal Murder—the brand new podcast from the famously biting satire publication The Onion—is such a perfectly timed gem. The show seems born out of a selfsame same frustration as my own, eager to take the wind out of the genre’s sails in delightfully parodic fashion. As a production of the fictitious Onion Public Radio, A Very Fatal Murder follows Brooklyn-based reporter David Pascall (a perfectly patronizing David Sidorov) on his quest to Bluff Springs, Nebraska, as he attempts to find and solve a murder in the hopes it will undoubtedly become an award-winning podcast. Along the way Pascall pins his focus on the town’s wealthiest resident, doggedly pursuing this lead in spite of actual evidence. Things don’t exactly go as planned, and there are some bombshells dropped that change the entire course of the narrative.
The show’s writers and producers manage to capture the tone of true crime podcasts perfectly before giving it a thick coat of absurdist humor. Pascall’s blend of smug self-righteousness, metropolitan elitism, and crime-solving hubris will be instantly recognizable to listeners of shows like S-Town, Serial, and Someone Knows Something. The comedy isn’t subtle, but it never veers too far off course, skewering every aspect of the podcasting medium from its coastal biases to the copy in their ubiquitous ad reads. Make no mistake that the show isn’t simply satisfied in making reference to existing podcasts and their tropes. This isn’t a parody in the mold of the films of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. It takes an awareness and originality of premise to produce something that comments on our own podcast consumption habits as well as the motives of their creators. It is a neat bit of metacommentary, given that some of the series’ best laughs are derived from Pascall’s overwrought desire to make the murder say something larger about the state of life in America.
The series wisely keeps things brief, running just around an hour and 15 minutes across seven episodes. This helps maintain a tightness to the comedy and ensures speedy resolution to its admittedly thin plot. Given all of those facets, as well as its trenchant take on the very medium itself, it isn’t hard to recommend A Very Fatal Murder to just about any podcast fan. Like an artfully diaphanous dessert, it is just the right amount of indulgence.
The Amelia Project won me over instantly with its off-kilter comic premise. The audio drama is about a shadowy agency that helps a different character each week plot a way to fake their own death in order to start a brand new life.
Absurdity can be maddening when you’re not looking for it. On the other hand, if it is something that one has sought out, it can be an effervescent and continually exciting joy.
The latter statement fairly well sums up how I feel about The Amelia Project, an episodic fiction podcast whose premise is winningly simple, and whose results are nothing short of fantastic. The logline is this: The Amelia Project are an secretive agency that help customers disappear, by faking their death and carefully developing a new life for them. Episodes consist only of a consultation between each week’s central character looking to get away and the mysterious head of the project, known simply as The Interviewer. Characters run the gamut including cult leaders and spurned lovers, from MI-5 spies to a fully sentient artificial intelligence. Backstories are fully fleshed out to sometimes surprising levels, providing the world of the show a nice depth that helps to ground the eccentricity of The Amelia Project’s clientele.
Written and directed by Philip Thorne and Øystein Brager, with lovely sound design by Fredrik Skaare Baden, the program feels so fully realized right out of the gate, having only launched in November of last year. This is likely because the program is the product of two theatre companies, the Norwegian and French Imploding Fictions, as well as Austria’s Open House Theatre. There is wonderful sense of composure to the podcast, even as the events of its episodes go seemingly off the rails. Alan Burgon voices The Interviewer, and as the show’s ostensible host he is a charming, idiosyncratic presence; a plummy-voiced Brit with a penchant for mirth, cocoa, and Veuve Clicquot.
The show’s follow-through is truly admirable. It is the first podcast I’ve encountered that employs a post-credit “button” sequence—most common in sitcoms like Seinfeld, wherein a final loose-end is tied up—as well as effective prelude episodes which goose listener interest for upcoming full releases. Each episode even has a corresponding case file (for purchase, naturally) that continues the narrative, documenting the client’s life following their fake demise. As well, with each new case, morsels of information are meted out, giving one a sense of an overarching narrative that is building throughout the seemingly disconnected episodes.
It’s a testament to the strength of the show’s cast and crew, as well as their world-building efforts, that over just five regular episodes I’ve already fallen headlong into The Amelia Project and can’t wait for the next one. When our own absurd world becomes too much to handle, it’s good to know that there’s the invitingly mad one of The Amelia Project there to help whisk it away.
Part 1: A Change Is Gonna Come
Over the past several years, podcasting has seen an increased output of sensational narratives as a means to drive listener engagement. It’s understandable, even as it is disappointing. So when a show like The Promise comes along—one that is patient, empathetic, and humane while still providing a captivating listen—it’s worth paying attention. This new podcast from Nashville Public Radio is all about investigating the changing landscape of public housing in America through the lens of Nashville’s James Cayce housing project and its subsequent renovation. Led by host and producer Meribah Knight, the show offers a human picture of this controversial subject. Knight uses the podcast platform wisely, taking time to delve not only into the specific issues facing the Cayce houses but also the racial history of public housing in America, focusing on individual residents and their mixed feelings about life in the homes. What makes the show so vital is the universality of its inquiry: collective society’s promise is one of protection and support, especially for its weakest members, and project housing hasn’t always been the best provider of either. The Promise’s holistic exploration provides an opportunity to do better, and it starts by listening.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.