For someone who loves audio as a medium and loves books,the assumption could be made that I love audiobooks. The assumption would be wrong. Audiobooks have always felt stale, poorly-paced, and auditorily unattractive. The closest I’ve come to enjoying an audiobook are the snippets I’ve heard to the full cast recordings of The Bad Beginning (the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events), and American Gods. The addition of voice actors performing different roles immediately invigorated the recordings to me, but they still sounded terrible. Why go to such trouble and not go the full mile into audio drama? Why stop short of something that actually utilizes the audio format?
This is where The Once and Future Nerd comes into play. Part fiction podcast, part audiobook, The Once and Future Nerd understands both its genre and its medium expertly.
The Once and Future Nerd is a genre-blending drama-comedy podcast that focuses on three high school students–Billy, the archetypal jock; Jenn, the archetypal cheerleader; and Nelson, the archetypal nerd–who are transported to a magical, Tolkein-esque realm. The show begins as a combination of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Breakfast Club, and The Goonies in a way that likens it to shows like Once Upon a Time or, much more favorably, Stranger Things. (It should also be noted that The Once And Future Nerd came out long before Stranger Things.)
Initially, the show seems overly familiar with a few exceptions that make it worth trudging through (the elf Yllowyyn’s southern accent, for instance, is a choice that never fails to delight in its subversion). Like many, if not most, fiction podcasts, The Once and Future Nerd takes some time to hit its stride. Unlike most fiction podcasts that come with the emphatic “Stick with it!” caveat, though, this one actually does have a payoff that makes the first string of episodes all the more worthwhile.
As the show develops, subversion becomes a clear running theme. We get glimpses of this with the aforementioned accented elves, but the true champion of subversion in the show comes in the form of Aerona Regan, usually referred to as just Regan. Regan fulfills the trope of the lost royal who will return to her throne to save the kingdom. Regan also, however, fulfills the role of crass, chaotic neutral rogue with a hatred of the upper class. The contrast already provides an interesting dynamic within the main cast of characters, but her role also makes the very large-scale political disruption plot more intimate and tangible.
Regan’s introduction sets the stage for the entire cast of characters becoming elegantly subversive; none of the character intricacies feel forced or tired. Each character develops in a way that feels natural and honest. Jenn slowly reveals herself as a lover of science and study; Billy slowly reveals himself as emotional, struggling with the ideas of traditional masculinity forced upon him. The character writing is on par with shows like The Bright Sessions and Wolf 359, which makes it all the more frustrating that the Once and Future Nerd isn’t discussed more.
The show is also more sociologically astute than any other podcast I’ve come across. Instead of being an easy escapist fantasy, the show lures the listener in with adventure but winds up discussing current social issues like class struggle, racism, misogyny, rape culture, cultural appropriation, and toxic masculinity. While sometimes a little on-the-nose, it’s refreshing to hear a show that doesn’t put itself in a strange cultural vacuum; it’s refreshing to hear a show actually touch on themes instead of having a plot for the only purpose of having a plot.
This isn’t to say that the show is one dark trudge through political unrest and social justice. The show is, more often than not, hilarious. The anachronisms the three teenagers offer strike the rare sweet spot between delightfully referential but not too pandering to the audience. The dialogue feels much more akin to Community than something like The Big Bang Theory, but it also has a wonderful knack for well-timed, well-placed throwaway jokes the listener might not notice on a first listen.
On March 12, 2017, The Once and Future Nerd premiered its first episode of Book 2, which will be initially released biweekly. The first episode was almost primarily recap of Book 1, summarized hilariously by the resentful, frustrated narrator. Even when only delivering a summary of past events, the show was still mindful of being creative and engaging, always understanding its audience and medium. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for more content based only on a summary before.
I’ll likely be posting more episode reviews for The Once and Future Nerd as episodes are released, but I implore you to give this show a fighting chance. I know the genre is a hard sell; I know the initial episodes are lackluster. I promise you that with patience, you’ll become a champion of this show like I am.
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