Winter is coming, friends. It’s that time of year when I try to keep the old brain perky while sleep-deprived and overworked. So, on top of my existing eight-ball a day podcast habit, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately. Seems like a better use of my many multitasking hours than binge watching Stargate for the fiftieth time. Although I must admit that the deeper we get into this election cycle, I’m getting a powerful hankerin’ to rewatch The West Wing. I might do that soon.
Anyway, all these documentaries and podcasts are giving me information overload, I think. They’re doing weird stuff to my brain. For example, yesterday I watched one documentary on DMT, one on Keith Richards, and listened to an episode of The Memory Palace (which is a fucking amazing show and you should go listen to all of it right now) about the first female doctor in the US Army. Now, it’s been less than twenty-four hours since I absorbed all these things, and as I’m writing this I just woke up, so either I’ll forget more as the day goes on or I’ll remember more as I get my coffee intake up to a normal human level. Either way, those three completely unrelated things will probably always be connected for me. I’ll remember that Howlin’ Wolf’s real name was Chester only because I recall that DMT stands for dimethyltryptamine and that will remind me of Mary Walker refusing to give back her Congressional Medal of Honor. Someday I’ll forget that yesterday happened, but I’ll know that the one fact makes me think of the others and have no idea why. And don’t even get me started on how weird my dreams are. Point is, I’m learning a lot but not retaining much, just bits and pieces and half stories and inexplicable connections.
In an effort to mix it up a little and maybe remember more of what I learn, I’ve been test-driving a few fiction podcasts. Thinning the stew, so to speak. The brain stew. The delicious brain stew. This is uncharted territory for me, mostly. I’ve been a vocal fan of Welcome to Night Vale for some time now (and I’m super stoked about their novel, which should be sitting in my mailbox today, so more on that soon), and a closet fan of A Prairie Home Companion for as long as I can remember. I like some storytelling stuff like The Moth and Snap Judgement, which have both fiction and nonfiction pieces. So, I ventured into fictional podcasts on a mission, but with no real idea what I wanted or where to look. I tried to find things like Night Vale or things that Night Vale fans recommend, but man is that a niche market. Do you have any idea how many podcasts there are about Cthulhu? More than there need to be, that’s how many. But because Night Vale and because it was almost Halloween, I found a bunch of lists, things like “spooky stories for your Halloween” and the like. I figured these were as good a place to start as any, horror being in my fiction wheelhouse. Listicles are occasionally helpful, I don’t care what anyone says. And I have learned some things, my friends. About the world. About myself. Shocking things. Important things. Things that I feel obligated to tell you because I love you and I care about the health and well-being of your earholes and your brain stew.
So, first Thing (category: surprising) – Just as there’s nothing quite like Night Vale, there’s also nothing quite like Serial. However, every jackass with a microphone seems to want to compare themselves to Serial and every idiot who leaves an iTunes review seems to want to encourage that behavior. Every other podcast says something like “Serial meets X-files” or “Serial written by Lovecraft” and even “Serial broadcast from Night Vale” (true story, I did not make those up). I understand wanting to ride on coattails, and Koenig’s got a great coattail pedigree (herself having ridden on Ira Glass’s), but just because it’s a podcast with a weekly narrative in a journalistic vein does not make it like Serial, y’all. Sorry. One show even went so far as to mimic the intro and style of Serial and use theme music that’s so similar I’d be shocked if whoever wrote it doesn’t get sued for copyright infringement. Homage is one thing, but ripping off is another. Name dropping for the sake of search engines is a third, lazier, more awful thing.
Second Thing (category: disappointing) – I spent probably eight solid hours listening to first episodes of things. It was a difficult day. I couldn’t get through a lot of them, even knowing that it takes a while for some people and shows to get their feet under them. I understand that, I really do, but if I’m going to pump your voice literally directly into my skull, I have to like you. A weird personal rule, but I stand by it. Having whittled it down to things I could stand, I gave a few second episodes a shot, hoping for improvement. But for fuck’s sake, so many of these shows are just bloody horrible. How do you decide to make a podcast and then hire bad voice actors? Do you just not hear it? It’s a podcast! You have one job! Well, two jobs, actually, but I have to say that the writing was not too shabby on most of these. I would have stuck around a lot longer for the stories if I didn’t want to punch the actors in the mouth.
Third Thing (category: faith in humanity-damaging) – Okay, a small caveat here. I’ve never left a review. Amazon, Goodreads, Yelp, iTunes, nothing. I click on the stars on Netflix and Goodreads, but I find that my instinct (and everyone else’s, whether they admit it or not) is to leave a review when something is either amazing or horrible, but never in between, when real discussion can happen. Point is, I don’t know how iTunes reviews work. If they can be taken down, edited, upvoted, paid for – I know nothing. However. I know that if you read enough of them you will start to feel like a different species. Putting aside the thing about only reviewing when you love or hate something, I was appalled – appalled, I say! – at the glowing, gushing reviews for some of these awful podcasts. “Excellent production!” Nope. “Fantastic acting!” You’re kidding, right? “It’s just like Serial!” It is not! More than all that poor taste (or even just different taste, fine, whatever, I’ll allow it), what bothered me the most was how many people thought these were real. They’re either master-level trolls, or they legitimately did not understand that these shows are fiction. I’m baffled here. Comments like “I don’t know how she kept recording, she must have been so scared.” Huh? Seriously? Or, even better, the angry one-star reviews from folks who realized it was fiction after listening and felt that they’d been duped somehow, lied to, misled. I realize that I’m writing a couple thousand words about this whole fiasco, but my ire has got nothing on those one-star review anger monkeys. Holy shit.
Fourth Thing (category: the worst part) – I finally got it down to the last handful of options. I was going to listen to one more episode each and if I still hated them, I would start over from the beginning. Still feeling pretty blah about all of them, I plodded through and Bam! Bam! Bam! All of them had some awesome, crazy twist ending, and now I have to keep listening. And because obviously the universe is against me right now, those four shows? All brand-new. Those were the latest episodes. I’m right back where I started, with nothing to listen to and, bonus, cliffhanger blueballs. I feel like I should maybe go back and give some of that other utter crap a second chance, just in case, but that makes me want to throw a toddler temper tantrum. Life is short, I can’t waste any more days on shitty audio entertainment. Fuck it, yes I can. I probably will. Dammit.
So, what have we learned? Podcast shopping is hard. Reviews are weird. Good voice actors are, apparently, really rare. I may go mad if I have to spend all winter with just the people who talk to me from my iPod. I haven’t slept. Howlin’ Wolf’s real name was Chester. A disheartening number of people don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. All learning and no fun makes brain a dull stew. But I’m considering this an exercise in extending my comfort bubble, so it’s probably for the best in the long run. And if you have a favorite fiction podcast, let me know. I’m on a mission.