Constant Listener Weekly—March 19, 2018

This week we’re going deep on Marvel’s first-ever scripted podcast, and a pair of twin shows about inspirational stories for girls.

First, a few podcast business thoughts.

In this edition of Constant Listener Weekly, I’m kind of breaking a personal rule. I’m writing about Stitcher and Marvel’s splashy new audiodrama, Wolverine: The Long Night, which is currently only available on Stitcher Premium, a paywalled subscription-based podcast service. In all of my time covering the medium I’ve chosen to cover shows that follow the dominant ethos of podcasting: free for all, ad and listener-supported listening. I have chosen this path because I fundamentally believe in the openness of the model. Windowing access to programs—which is to say, releasing a program exclusively on a paid platform for an extended period of time before eventually opening them up on a free feed—still feels a bit weird, even as more programs become exclusive.

I don’t really wade into the discussion of the podcast business because I’d much rather assess a program on its artistic merits alone. However I feel that the release of Wolverine: The Long Night is a pretty enormous event in the space and I’d be remiss if I waited until August (when it will be released on all platforms) to talk about it. It all feels a little strange. I wouldn’t be going through these ethical paroxysms if I were writing about a TV show that was on cable instead of broadcast, but the podcast model isn’t exactly analogous to that. The vast majority of shows are available for free, regardless of the quality of personnel involved. What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts or hit me up on Twitter.

Marvel’s first-ever scripted podcast, Wolverine: The Long Night is finally here. The show comes with a great deal of expectations, and I went long this week dissecting whether or not it lives up to them.

There was no more high profile a podcast release this past week than Wolverine: The Long Night, though you might not have noticed it. The show is currently only available to subscribers of Stitcher Premium, the paid subscription podcast service. The show’s release represents a major push forward into the podcasting space however, being the first incursion into the arena for Marvel, one of the most recognizable and valued entertainment brands in the world. It indicates both a willingness to innovate on their part, as well as giving credence to the notion that podcasts are as viable a storytelling platform as film, television, and printed media.

Given the show’s status as Marvel’s first audio drama there are a host of expectations that come along with it. First and foremost, that the show feature all of the polish that one has come to expect from their other large-scale output. The second is that for a company so firmly rooted in visual media, a great deal of care should be paid to the way it crafts sound, making the case that launching an audio-only product isn’t simply a brand extension into the steadily growing podcast market, but something that uses the medium’s strengths to differentiate itself in the same way that comics utilizes several artist’s skills in concert with the author’s.

Does Wolverine: The Long Night successfully meet these criteria? It’s perhaps too early to say. I have only listened to three episodes of the program at this point, but what I’ve heard makes me want to stick around and hear the rest of it. This is due in large part to the fact that the show’s sound design is some of the best that I’ve ever heard anywhere. The attention paid to creating the highest level of verisimilitude is unparalleled in podcast audio drama. Every environment feels distinct and fully three-dimensional, immersive and uniquely visible within the imagination. This is aided through the skillful mixing of diegetic sounds; footfalls and vocal echoes suggest the volume of each space the characters inhabit. Music is used judiciously, only popping up to add an undercurrent of dread to key moments. Another aspect of the production that stands out is how it fluidly affects the storytelling. Particularly with regard to how flashbacks are handled, occurring in parallel with the narrative much as they would in a visual medium. There is a refreshing lack of signposting when these occur, trusting that the audience will be able to follow along.

Audio dramas are a rather tricky medium to get right for actors. More often than not, performances are dogged by a veneer of remove, feeling overly affected and hollow, but Wolverine manages to avoid this almost entirely. The acting is, for the most part, nuanced and vibrant and particularly noteworthy for the way that characters’ interactions stem from a place of honesty. Conversations sound like conversations, there are stakes and statuses present in just about everything said, and that is a rather rare thing in this realm. It makes all the difference, and marks the production as something head and shoulders above its competition.

The script, written by comics scribe Benjamin Percy, is focused on the investigation of a series of murders in a small Alaskan fishing village. The chief suspect would appear to be Wolverine himself, but there are many curious things going on in the town, particularly a Heaven’s Gate-style cult to keep listeners guessing. The tale is told mostly from the point of view of the special agents investigating the murders, voiced by Ato Essandoh and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Through the first few episodes Wolverine, voiced by Richard Armitage, is a scarce commodity, his presence in Alaska is as much a mystery as the slayings. I appreciate this choice by Percy, as backgrounding Wolverine’s presence actually works within the confines of the story. We as an audience need an interlocutor, since we’re going into this high concept world on faith alone. Choosing to focus on the story through the eyes of the special agents provides a natural mechanism for parsing and restatement of events for the audience’s benefit. There are thankfully very few times when the language of the script falls prey to one of the worst tropes of audio drama, that of unnatural explanation, where dialogue is made to telegraph to listeners actions or items that they’d otherwise clearly have seen, were it a visual production.

I admit that when the project was first announced I wasn’t feeling very excited for it, but a later announcement that the show was being directed by Brendan Baker made it clear that Marvel intended to make the show something truly special. Baker was for years a producer and sound designer for Love + Radio, the innovative and arresting narrative documentary podcast. His involvement with that show had found ways of turning interview tape into art, transporting listeners and playing with their emotions. Hearing of his involvement in this show was akin to being a comics fan and learning that Darwyn Cooke (RIP) or Francesco Francavilla would be drawing your favorite book. Add in the presence of assistant director Chloe Prasinos, whose background is in primarily in documentary audio having worked for Reply All and various public radio stations. The pair might seem a bit of an odd fit for the world of audio drama but in practice their unique sensibilities combine to make something special, namely a very naturalistic approach to a form that is usually either over or under stylized. Wolverine: The Long Night is an assured debut, sonically and performance-wise. It’s too soon to judge it on the strength of its storytelling, but suffice it to say I’m eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

If you want to check out Wolverine: The Long Night today, you can sign up for Stitcher Premium here and get a month-long free trial.

Two brand new podcasts from opposite sides of the world manage to produce nearly the same show. Fierce Girls and Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls both tell inspirational stories about, by, and for young women.

There is a phenomenon known as twin films, where two entirely separate movies are made that are unwittingly thematically linked, released around the same time as one another. This happened a lot in the end of the late ’90s, with movies like Volcano and Dante’s PeakDeep Impact and ArmageddonA Bug’s Life and Antz. But it’s rare to find something like it in the world of podcasts. Sure, there are ones that are somewhat odious, like Someone Else’s Movierunning their format for years before Movie Crush came along and put out the exact same show with less charm and insight.

So it was a bit of a shock when I came across these two podcasts earlier this month. Fierce Girls and Good Night Stories For Rebel Girlslaunched within a day of one another, following the same format, where a story of an inspiring girl is narrated by another inspiring woman, specifically written and produced to appeal to younger audiences. While Fierce Girls is all about telling stories of Australian girls, Good Night Stories has a more global view. They are both very well made podcasts, with powerful stories told clearly and concisely with an emphasis on engaging sound design to keep kids’ attentions.  

The stories from Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls come from the book of the same name by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo published in 2016. That fact alone would seem to suggest that Fierce Girls is somehow using Favilli and Cavallo’s formula for their own, but I honestly don’t see this as being the case here. As a production of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Fierce Girlsis focused specifically on inspiring stories from that country. As a result the stories being told aren’t likely to overlap with those covered by Good Night Stories. There might have been an element of inspiration, but beyond that the two seem to just be part of the twin podcasts phenomenon.

In the end, I found both shows to be really smart and absorbing. Hearing inspiring stories from equally inspirational individuals is something that we can use more of, frankly. Episodes are all under 20 minutes, which makes them a perfect entry point into podcasting for young audiences as well. There is a great emphasis on diversity within the stories and their tellers, choosing to show that greatness of spirit and achievement is not limited by race, ethnicity, religion, or class. I appreciate the efforts being taken by both podcasts to provide such worthwhile content. There ought to be more shows like these for audiences both young and old.

Subscribe to Fierce Girls here.

Subscribe to Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls here.

My most recent recommendation at The A.V. Club was a truly moving episode of The Constant, which explores an historical issue of English shipwrecks in the 18th century as an analog to a present public malady in America.

The Constant

Human history is littered with stories of progresses forgotten, and it is easy to take for granted the many regulatory victories that have ground down the barbed edges of our perilous past. This week’s episode of The Constant—a show about examining various historical mistakes in order to investigate whether we’ve learned anything from them—is all about the ways that these simple regulations can amount to massive life-saving changes. Host Mark Chrisler unspools a salty yarn, all about how a dramatic increase in English shipwrecks between the 17th and 19th centuries led one man to propose sweeping shipping reforms. Chrisler manages to avoid dry pedantry by turning a tale of maritime malfeasance into an allegory of vital importance. The episode is rich with details, from the founding of Lloyd’s Of London and its role in the creation of insurance underwriting to the treacherous practice of shipowners reusing once-sunken vessels as a way of gambling on their crew’s lives for insurance payouts. Chrisler’s storytelling prowess makes this episode a masterful slow burn, patiently explicating its narrative before building to a resonant emotional climax. This one is hard to shake.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.


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