I think we can all agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best films in recent memory.
Just about every part of the film is phenomenal, and it utilizes every part of what makes film the medium that it is. The film is very obviously meant for its medium: the visuals are stunning, meant to be seen on as big a screen as possible–a point further emphasized by its IMAX release; the sound editing is incredible (I’d highly recommend this Lindsay Ellis video for more details on that) and meant to surround and immerse the audience; the pacing shifts gracefully between slow, quiet scenes, and raucous battles–something that can only be accomplished over presenting the content in full.
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t need to justify itself as a film; the audience understands that delivered in any other medium, it just wouldn’t work as well. Any clear justification of why it belongs in its medium would break suspension of disbelief for the viewer.
This isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes, highlighting the medium is exactly what makes a piece of work stand out. Take, for instance, the TV show Community.
Community, a delightfully postmodernist take on a sitcom, regularly puts the spotlight on its medium. The characters actively discuss “bottle episodes” and characters’ desire to make reality less real. Like Mad Max, Community belongs solely to its medium; unlike Mad Max, it will declare itself a part of the medium consistently, but in a way that’s integral to the show’s purpose.
Both of these tactics (tacitly existing inside the medium and highlighting the medium consistently) can be employed to a piece’s benefit when done with elegance. Simply existing inside the medium is, obviously, the most common method; film and TV have been around for decades. They don’t need to be justified, unless it’s a facet of the content. People make film because it’s what you do, and people make TV because it’s what you do. Certain stories work better in certain mediums, and that’s something that, culturally, we understand and expect from decades of exposure to both.
What, though, of new media–and what of media that blends new and old together? What of podcasts?
There seems to be an idea in the podcasting world that shows need to justify themselves within the medium. Audio is a unique and specific medium that has lain dormant for years outside of programs like This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion, both of which have the connection to NPR to justify their inclusion in audio. With the recent resurgence of audio popularity, creators have had a tendency of forcing justification into their content. Like with Community, this can be done smoothly. Most often, though, it makes for clunky, awkward writing that stretches suspension of disbelief at thinly as it can be.
First, let’s examine some of the good that does highlight its medium. The obvious choice would be a discussion of Welcome to Night Vale as the Community postmodernist parallel, and while I do think it uses its medium brilliantly, Within the Wires is a much more thorough examination of the writing tactic.
Within the Wires, like many of its contemporaries, gives justification through the means of its conceit or framing device. The show is, at its core, a story about one woman, Hester, breaking another, Oleta, out of an unsettling, sci-fi testing facility. The way that its told is through a series of several relaxation tapes, ostensibly being listened to by Oleta and recorded by Hester.
The insistence on medium in Within the Wires is never forced. The story feels tied, by necessity, to its framing device. Telling the story of Hester and Oleta would not have had the same slow suspense without being told through the relaxation tapes: the juxtaposition of Hester leading Oleta through relaxation exercises while clearly upset and often panicked give the show a sense of desperation that effortlessly reflects Hester’s desire for Oleta to be freed and for them to, hopefully, be together again. Starting the show with sets of instructions in the form of meditation exercises segues into later episodes’ instructions on escape procedures in a way that both raises the stakes and makes the earlier, slower episodes entirely necessary in the scope of the show. Within the Wires absolutely could not have been told outside of audio, and it reminds you of that consistently through its insistence upon being told as “relaxation tapes.”
Not every podcast needs to rely on showcasing its medium to work within it, though. Take, for instance, Eos 10, another sci-fi podcast, though one that leans more heavily on camp and soap opera tendencies than the serious, crisp Within the Wires.
At no point does Eos 10 give itself a reason to be told in audio. The content isn’t tied to any radio broadcast or investigative report. Nobody is recording anything. The content simply exists in audio without having a justification, but it works beautifully. The show, more comedy than anything else, often features alien creatures that are left to the listener’s imagination. Without having to depend on CG or even just a basic canon appearance, the listener can imagine the aliens as mundane or ridiculous as they want. There can be debates about whether a character’s throwaway line about someone’s hair, murmured in inebriation, is canonically accurate or not. The entire show works better as audio than it would in any other medium.
Most podcasts, though, aren’t Community or Mad Max. Most podcasts are Chronicle.
Chronicle is a found footage film about teens who acquire superpowers. The conceit of the film is that the story’s pro-and-antagonist, Andrew, films everything that happens to him. The camerawork is usually shaky other than when Andrew is controlling his camera with telepathy. Characters often look directly at the camera to speak. These are fine conventions in most found footage films, but in Chronicle, it’s forced and breaks suspension of disbelief constantly. As a note, I’m going to spoil Chronicle, but that shouldn’t matter because you shouldn’t watch it.
There are so many scenes in Chronicle that absolutely would not have been filmed. Whether it’s mourning the death of his friend or descending into supervillainy, Andrew just would not continue filming certain moments. This is pressed even further when the film insists on continuing the found footage, with Andrew being filmed by news reports, iPhones, etc. just to maintain the conceit of the film. This raises so many questions to the audience: are we lead to believe this is a “real” thing that happened, and we’re watching a documentary of all of the events? If so, why would this documentary only include found footage and no interviews or commentary? Are we supposed to believe that, yes, we are very much watching a film? If so, why not just . . . make a film?
Chronicle was an ambitious attempt to revive two genres (found footage and superhero films) by blending them together, and there is some respect that should be paid to that. It is unfortunate that this small consolation is usually not the case with podcasts.
Many fiction podcasts will give a reason to deliver their story in audio and cling to it with such tenacity, the listener is distracted away from the content itself. For this example, I’m going to use The Bright Sessions, a podcast that begins with its super-human characters being recorded during therapy sessions. I am using The Bright Sessions as an example because it is a podcast I love dearly, and this is maybe one of the only issues with the show I’ve encountered so far.
The early episodes of The Bright Sessions use their conceit in much the same way as Within the Wires. Cementing its content as recordings of therapy sessions gave the flashy superhuman characters a sense of intimacy and realism. Using the powers as both a metaphor for and canonical response to mental health issues deepened the writing in a way that is often unparalleled by other fiction podcasts. The issue is not with these recordings; the issue is when the show breaks away from this format to deliver dialogue to the patients outside of the session setting. The writing forces the recordings by having all of the characters decide, independently of each other, to always record their interactions.
For some characters, recording their day-to-day lives makes sense. Chloe, the mind-reader, records her lectures and conversations so she can hear them clearly without the interruptions of others’ thoughts. Agent Green records his conversations because it is his job. When Adam, a high-schooler, records an intimate conversation with his boyfriend, though, the conceit starts to dissolve:
Caleb: Sounds good to me. We’ll be weird together.
Adam: Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.
Caleb: What, were–were you recording this?
Adam: . . . Yeah? It-it’s not anything shady, I promise, I just, I wasn’t sure how this was gonna go, and if it ended badly, maybe we would never talk again, and, well . . . I, I like listening to your voice. (Laughs)
While Shippen’s writing usually conveys the tone of teenage boys so well, this is just not something a teenager of any gender would believably do. The fact that it’s played off as endearing strains it even further. Moments like these land The Bright Sessions in the same conundrum as Chronicle: is the listener supposed to believe they’re listening to some sort of documentary? If so, why is this the way it’s edited? Is the listener supposed to understand that this is fiction and, if so, why force a reason for found audio?
Again, this is only such a problem in The Bright Sessions because it is one of the only problems with The Bright Sessions. More often than not, I’m willing to over look the Misusing the Medium Podcast Problem in this show because if all the characters can have just one aspect of them be a bit of a stretch, I am more than happy to give it a pass.
Misusing the Medium is usually a glaring issue only when it intersects with bad writing, bad acting, or bad production, at which point it becomes unbearably frustrating. On more than one occasion, I would have stuck with a podcast that had poor production and acting, but Misusing the Medium tipped it over the edge.
Juggling between the ability to highlight your medium, as with Within the Wires, but not force your medium, as with Eos 10 seems like an impossibility unless one extreme is taken over the other. It has been shown, though, that both can be achieved if the writers just trust their audience.
Wolf 359 is an example of a show that starts with audio at its core: the episodes are, initially, the recordings of Doug Eiffel, communications officer on a space station. As the show progresses, though, it slowly casts off this framing device and allows itself to simply exist. The writers don’t make excuses for the interactions to be recorded; the audience is simply given the story.
This requires a great deal of trust in the audience. It requires that the writers trust the audience to just accept their content in its form. It requires that the producers trust the audience to know that sometimes, the only reason the content is a podcast is because they didn’t have the ability to make a TV show or film.
What’s wonderful about the podcast world is that we listeners already love audio. We’re not asking for excuses about why content is being delivered in this way. We’re ecstatic when a show comes along and innovates the medium, but usually, all we want is a good story. Trust your audience. Instead of having your Caleb and Adam record each other, just give us their conversation. We’ll understand. We won’t be mad about how we can be listening in. Especially in sweet moments like these, I promise the listener will just be happy to hear the content at all.