After spending the last two weeks with the series, I’m ready to discuss this high profile release.
This week I’m going long on The Great God Of Depression, the latest work on Showcase From Radiotopia.
There’s a trope familiar to the radio world that used to irk me as a listener. It is one that has thankfully died off as the podcast medium has risen to prominence however. I’ve come to call the term “radio exciting,” for the way that hosts would oversell the importance, drama, or humor of something that would be happening later in the episode or series, making claims to the superlative nature of the content and how it might change the way that one looks at the world. It was used, I presume, as a means to hook the listener at the outset, or just before jumping to commercial, fully aware of the fickle nature of fingers on the radio dial.
The truth about “radio exciting” is, to be terribly frank, that it’s almost never actually exciting. In part this was applied to segments that didn’t have the legs to stand on their own, hence the need for hyperbole. This is led to them to feel disingenuous from the jump, like a comedian saying, “I’m about to tell the funniest joke in the world, and it just might change your life.” No one can reasonably deliver on such a setup.
I began to notice this trope when listening to the early years of This American Life. It was the kind of thing that made sense during the days of broadcast, where the top of show segment would lay breadcrumbs to entice listeners to see the program through. The one which still sticks out in my mind is the Jonathan Goldstein-produced piece from episode 203: “Recordings for Someone” where much hay is made about “the greatest phone message in the world.” What surfaces seemingly proves that the half-life of you-had-to-be-there humor is measured in seconds only, though, it should be noted, to no fault of Goldstein’s.
These moments would occasionally pop up on other broadcast shows as well, but as the intentional listening habits of podcast consumers began to reshape the narrative audio landscape, writers stopped relying on the trope as often. As shows began to grow into their formats they also adopted a more focused approach to storytelling, meaning fewer extraneous pieces that might need to be given the “radio exciting” treatment.
So, when The Great God Of Depression host Pagan Kennedy begins this new Showcase From Radiotopia mini-series by running through a list of unrelated “radio exciting” teasers, (cemeteries, Frank Sinatra, a suicide note, etc.) it gave me a bad feeling about what was to follow. That feeling was replaced in short order thanks to the first episode’s gripping storytelling and immersive sound design and scoring. But over the course of the remaining four episodes I kept coming back to that bit of writing up top, unable to shake the feeling that it was a tell, cluing a perceptive listener into the fact that the series didn’t quite have the story that it wanted its audience to believe it had.
The Great God Of Depression, produced by Kennedy and Karen Brown, aims to tell the story of two people—celebrated author William Styron and neurologist Alice Flaherty—connected by a Janusian madness which brings them together to uniquely solve their problems. Styron is afflicted with crippling writer’s block, while Flaherty’s hypergraphia compels her to scrawl incessantly.
Kennedy and Brown have done a very good job in their production of the series from the sourcing of compelling archival tape, interviewing Styron’s family, friends, and those influenced by him, as well as overseeing excellent sound design. The latter, particularly the work of sound designer Ian Coss represents the show’s strongest achievement, composing a wonderfully memorable leitmotif representing depression which returns in a number of arrangements depending on the context. Flaherty’s hypergraphia makes an instant impression thanks to Coss’s work, manifesting her mania in a sort of somber tango, pencil and paper scribbling dances between the notes of a frenetic, mournful string arrangement. It makes for an instantly memorable-sounding production.
Listening as someone unfamiliar with Styron’s works apart from Sophie’s Choice, the show functions as an engaging exploration of his book Darkness Visible, and how it helped to change the discourse around mental health. Coming of age with the mass-marketing of SSRIs, it is sometimes hard to imagine a time when mental health was more stigmatized. In its exploration of Styron’s history with mental illness The Great God Of Depression does a very good job of setting the stage for the ways his work helped to mainstream the general acceptance of such afflictions.
Had that been the show’s only aim the relevant pieces existed for it to have been a great success, but its overall impact is diluted with the inclusion of Flaherty’s parallel narrative. Given that so much tape is devoted to exploring Styron’s life, his works, and his legacy, the listener becomes chiefly invested in his story. Kennedy and Brown’s attempt to link the two threads mostly comes off feeling tenuous. One needn’t look further than Kennedy’s recent New York Times Opinion piece on Styron bearing the same name, where Flaherty’s name only comes up three times. Attempting to marry both stories across all five episodes results in a muddy timeline, often hopping back and forth from multiple decades per episode. In all it feels more like a bit of narrative contrivance than it does a vital exploration of a shared mania.
The audience is told several times that Styron and Flaherty will end up having a great impact on each other’s life, that the narrative arc is building toward some climactic resolution, but when that moment arrives it is treated as an afterthought. We do learn that Flaherty, using Darkness Visible as a prism to view her own madness, eventually writes a book on writer’s block and rather coincidentally ends up treating Styron late in his life, becoming something of a friend of the family in the process. But the cards are all laid on the table with the way that Kennedy ends the series, with a sort of half-hearted confession, admitting to doing the project largely for Flaherty’s benefit, as she finds herself unable to write about the experience. It takes the wind out of the show’s sails, acknowledging that the story it has just told isn’t the one it had intended to tell in the first place. I don’t wish to erase Flaherty from the story, it is very much hers as well, it’s just that the resulting piece isn’t the most coherent narrative that could have been produced.
The main problem as I see it is that buried within The Great God Of Depression is an important podcast about mental illness, and the long road to its destigmatization over the past 30 years. Unfortunately the show that we got is only two thirds of the way there. Perhaps that is enough, perhaps producing a show simply about the former would have been a tough sell, and grounding it in the present with Flaherty makes it easier for listeners to connect with. Showcase has been a wonderful outlet for Radiotopia, giving a prominent space for more experimental shows to get a run-out. In the year since the launch of Showcase the programs have largely been excellent examples of that ethos, approaching their subjects from a unique vantage and voice. The Great God Of Depression feels like the first stumble for the program. Not a failure by a long shot, but one whose missteps in production are inescapable, resulting a less than satisfying series.
Subscribe to Showcase From Radiotopia here.
My most recent piece for The A.V. Club Podmass I featured FriendsLikeUs, a wonderful interview show featuring comedians of color. This excellent episode features Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live.
Leslie Jones From SNL Visits Friends
FriendsLikeUs has long been a gem of podcasting, providing women (and particularly women of color) a place to sit down and unapologetically discuss their lives in the world of comedy. These conversations are often quite frank, touching as much on the issues of the day as the minutiae of the stand-up scene and all with a great deal of humor. On this episode, host Marina Franklin is joined by Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live, along with multi-hyphenate comics Tracee Loran and Alvin Irby. The panel’s discussions wend a wonderful path across the episode’s 90 minutes, though it is unmistakably Jones’ hand on the rudder. Listeners get an education in Jones’ stand-up bona fides as she recounts the lessons she learned about the craft during her days as a touring comedian and how none of it prepared her for the experience of doing SNL. Jones’ candor and outsize personality are on full display, but so too is a sense of sagacity, imparting a great deal of wisdom that any young comic would do well to heed. The episode is marked by a tone of introspection on ageism, failure, and dedication, taking it beyond the realm of typical celebrity interviews.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.
As a coda, I offer you this:
If your day ever needs a shot in the arm, this little bit of Glaswegian post-punk from 1980 always does the trick.