Last week I did a binge-listen of all of A.R. Olivieri’s audio drama podcasts. I recently started listening to the one that started last spring, Great & Terrible (because I’m about 8 months behind on podcasts these days), and something clicked and made me think I should go listen to them all. This isn’t as big a project as it sounds, because individual episodes top out at about 8 minutes, less credits. I started listening on Sunday and finished up on Thursday.
I casually follow what might be called the “audio drama community”, but mostly I’m a listener. From what I can tell, Olivieri projects an aura of obscurity, doing projects that are notably different from many other audio dramas, and also being personally something of a mysterious figure. His web site is pretty sparse, and the only info about him his this interview podcast, which I listened to after finishing (or catching up on) his series. I have no idea if all of this is intentional on his part, but it’s an interesting image. Many other podcasters are pretty transparent about their personas, at least in broad strokes.
His podcasts, too, are kinda quirky, with a distinctive – though evolving – structure which makes them stand out. For example:
- Each podcast title & episode title is in ALL CAPS.
- Every episode is almost exactly a round number of minutes, for example 3:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00. Sometimes they’re a second longer, but that might be a rounding error in my podcast app. While he sometimes pads an episode with music to get to this point, it seems likely that he plans or edits many episodes to fit into a specific amount of time. Does any other audio drama do this?
- Only his first series, 2298, has introductory music, which comes in almost exactly 1 minute in. All the others have a cold open.
- Every series except for Limbo has closing credits which are 30, 60 or 90 seconds in length. Most of the credits have a memorable turn of phrase where he says, “<this podcast> is written, directed and produced by… me! A.R. Olivieri.”, followed by some info about his Patreon.
- His podcasts have music by a variety of performers (none of whom I’m otherwise familiar with), but they all feel somewhat similar – like they’re in a particular style which I infer Olivieri likes.
- Structurally several of the stories are grouped into “chapters” of 2-to-4 episodes, although except for 2298 there’s no clear indicator in the audio itself of this; you need to look at the show notes.
It’s quirky, but I think a lot of it is cool, appealing to the structure work in me. It’s just… very different compared to other audio drama podcasts.
It took me a while to realize that many – maybe all – of his shows take place in the same world, and that he’s slowly revealing the nature of that world. There’s connective tissue, but where everything fits together is not entirely clear. I find this deeply neat, and it definitely elevated my interest in his shows to another level. I believe in one of his “thank you” shows he alluded to it being a single world.
Olivieri is clearly very respected in the audio drama community, and he gets several top-notch voice actors from other podcasts to appear in them. Some actors appear more than once, and it’s not always clear whether they’re appearing in different roles, in the same role but we don’t know that they’re the same role, or if there’s something else going on. (“There’s something else going on” is a recurring theme in his shows.) For example, Sarah Rhea Werner, who does the great Girl in Space audio drama and who recorded the interview above, shows up several times. She has a really distinctive voice, which which made me wonder, “Wait, is this character also this other character… or not?”
Olivieri also does voice acting, appearing in a few of his own podcasts as well as others. I first heard him as one of the two main characters in the SF horror drama Janus Descending, which is maybe the best performance I’ve heard by him. In his own dramas he plays an everyman sort of character, observing, commenting on and questioning the world around him, while in Janus he’s a scientist who gets thrown in way over his head and is by turns frustrated, panicked, annoyed, terrified, and angry. It’s quite a range.
At time of writing, Olivieri has 5 audio dramas of his own, 4 complete and one still ongoing. Here are some of my thoughts about them. Also, while I didn’t listen to them in this order, I think this is the best order to listen to them in, as least as of the time of writing:
2298: A dystopian story taking place in the titular year. Number 24 is a “profile” in the remnant of humanity, somewhere on Earth in an enclosed environment after civilization’s collapse led to an invasion and a new society being set up run by a computer system called the Network. 24 – voiced by Olivieri – is a happy young cog in the machine until a bird and some strange dreams lead him down a path outside the one the Network has assigned him. The story contrasts a totalitarian society to a free one through the eyes of someone who’s happy with the system he lives in. The ending hints at where some of the other shows are going, although I imagine that wasn’t very clear when it first aired in 2018.
Magic King Dom: This was the first show I listened to; it grabbed my interest because of its conceit of a girl who grows up in Walt Disney World after the end of the world destroys everyone else. Dom (voiced by Lysette Alvarez of Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services, whose performance is great) survives for 6 years by herself before she encounters other survivors in the park, who need her to escape. There have been two seasons so far, with the third and final one coming soon. The writing is pretty strong as far as it goes, but there’s an awkward discontinuity between the first two seasons and there are several bits I found hard-to-follow, so I’m glad I re-listened to it. I think the story takes place about a century from now. The second season is where the hint of the tie-in to 2298 appears, but it’s still not clear how it fits together.
Limbo: David (Olivieri) is a thirtysomething (?) man who dies and finds himself in a house her grew up in, alone, except that he receives one visitor each month. Only 6 episodes, but to be continued in the future. It’s the lightest on plot of all the stories, and if you prefer stories which focus on the background, foibles and anxieties of the main character, then this is the one for you. It’s not quite my thing, though, as I am more plot-oriented, and I felt this was basically a collection of settings and moods without a sense of moving forward. I’m also not sure what more there is to do with what’s here if it does continue as the final episode seems, well, pretty final.
Great and Terrible: This one is the story of a woman who was gifted and cursed with immortality (and maybe other powers?), but who has to kill someone every new moon or her life is forfeit. (No spoilers – it’s right there in the podcast description!) This is the slowest of slow burns: While it’s self-narrated from – it seems – centuries in the future, the whole story so far takes place in 1988, when the main character of Jane (Leslie Gideon) is in high school and acquires the curse. It’s weekly 4-minute (less credits) episodes, and after 8 months we’ve just gotten to the curse, but it is nonetheless quite good and at times arresting, and it’s the sort of story that could go on for many years at this pace, so I wonder if that’s what Olivieri plans for it – I hope so. The high school dialogue is perhaps just a bit too precious (TBF I wouldn’t want to write high school dialogue from that era, and Jane is only 3 years younger than I am!), but Gideon’s performance sells just about everything else. This is in my opinion Olivieri’s best series to date.
The Easiest of All the Hard Things: Kelsey (Lucille Valentine, who gave perhaps the most memorable performance in the first season of The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray) is stranded on an island with only a turtle for company when they find a cell phone, and work to charge it to hopefully get off the island. How did they get there? How do they expect to get a cell signal? Who left the phone? I found the last episode of the season pretty baffling, and the story overall felt slight compared to the others, although with more of a plot than Limbo. But overall I wasn’t sure what I should have taken away from it.
I definitely enjoyed the binge-listen, and found myself much better able to engage with the stories than I was when I’d just listened to Magic King Dom and Limbo, which are at the more surreal end of the spectrum. It looks like he has at least a couple more series planned, and I’m definitely curious whether the pieces across the stories will start to knit together more closely as time goes on. I hope so!