After several years of Magic, poker and science podcasts, I dipped my toes into fiction podcasts – or, as most of their creators prefer to call them, audio dramas – with Welcome to Night Vale and a couple of other podcasts from the Night Vale Presents network (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post). But it was just a sideline to the nonfiction podcasts until…
I don’t remember where I heard about The Polybius Conspiracy, a 7-episode documentary about an urban legend surrounding an early-80s video game, which seemed like a great piece of niche investigative journalism. Or at least, I thought it was a documentary, but it turns out it was mostly fiction. Something about it seemed too good to be true, but it was so well done it fooled me. Which left me pretty mad. But there was a silver lining:
In the form of Wil Williams and her blog. I found her review by searching for information about the Polybius show. Exploring her site and following her Twitter, I found – well, I honestly don’t know which shows I found first through her, but a year(ish) later most of my podcast subscriptions are audio dramas, including several completed ones and some long-running ones I’m catching up on.
So I’m going to survey the ones I’ve listened to in groups, starting with what I think of as “conspiracy fiction” audio dramas: Podcasts which present a conspiracy or urban legend as if it were real. But they’re a lot more enjoyable when you know that they’re fiction.
The biggest risk with podcasts of this genre is that they’ll dance around the edges of the story and not get to a satisfying payoff. That basically happened with Polybius, which kind of petered out at the end. I think of this as “X-Files syndrome”, where an unwillingness or inability to take the story to (or at least towards) a satisfying ending drove me away from that show in its third season. (The fact that The X-Files was running opposite Babylon 5 – while B5 was smoking all the other genre shows with its deliberate storytelling – probably didn’t help.) The journey is enjoyable up to a point, but the payoff is a critical part of stories like this. I don’t think everyone agrees with me on that (evidence: the persistent and baffling popularity of The X-Files), but to me it’s make-or-break: If the writers just want to do weird stuff and don’t have a fairly concrete payoff in mind from the beginning, then I’m probably going to find it more frustrating than enjoyable.
Note that since I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas and catching up on some older ones, some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.
- TANIS: It seems it’s just about impossible to get into this genre of podcasts and not eventually end up listening to TANIS, from the Public Radio Alliance. Host Nic Silver (an alias of writer/producer Terry Miles) explores the lost city (?) of Tanis starting from a few hazy clues, but quickly going down the rabbit hole of deaths, disappearances, shadowy figures, and corporate espionage. He’s aided by his new friend, the hacker MeerKatnip (MK). The show is in its fourth season, and I’m nearing the end of the first. I definitely worry about X-Files syndrome with TANIS, but so far the ride is enjoyable. The interactions between the out-of-his-depth Silver and the snarky MK are the highlights of the show so far.
- Rabbits: Another PRA production, which ran for one season (a Kickstarter for a second season failed), and arguably it’s even better than TANIS. Host Carly Parker is searching for her missing friend, and ends up being dragged into the latest iteration of a centuries-old game called Rabbits, which has mostly avoided appearing on the Internet. While the last episode is a little less than I’d hoped for, it does have a satisfying conclusion, and there are a lot of neat cultural Easter eggs along the way to read about on Wikipedia. If they do somehow do a second season, I hope they delve into the mechanics and outcomes of the game some more (even though I’m sure they haven’t really thought about those, but I think they have to in order to keep interest).
- The Last Movie: Another PRA creation from Nic Silver, this one dropped all six of its episodes at once earlier this year. Nic and MK investigate the rumored “Last Movie” of the 1970s, which supposedly kills everyone who sees it. A pretty good introduction to the PRA style, but it’s not as good as TANIS or Rabbits.
- Limetown: The first season (back in 2015) concerned a fictional corporate town in Tennessee, all of whose inhabitants disappeared ten years ago. Reporter Lia Haddock investigates what happened to them. I’m not as high on this story as some people are, as I wasn’t wild about the revelations or the conclusion, find them all a bit pedestrian for fantastic fiction. But I enjoyed it well enough to see if they develop it in a more satisfying manner in the upcoming season two. From what I’ve read that this was one of the first of the modern wave of podcasts, so with several years since the first season ended, simply assimilating what others have done in the form in the meantime might make for a more satisfying story.
- Mermaids of Merrow’s Cove: A public radio reporter goes home to her town in New England to investigate apparent kidnappings and murders of young women who appear on the beach and which locals suspect are mermaids. I’m 3 episodes into this 6-episode series, and it’s pretty good, though I find it not as polished as PRA’s offerings; in particular I find the story and acting to feel a bit contrived. The high points so far have been the reading of the journal by an early inhabitant of the town.
Next time I’ll cover the science fiction genre, which include some of my very favorite audio dramas I’ve discovered to date.