This Week in Podcasts a weekly roundup of mini-reviews of all of the podcasts I’ve listened to in a week. If you see any podcasts that you feel are missing from my list, there’s a good chance I haven’t listened to the show yet! Feel free to give me recommendations–as well as any feedback or discussion!–in the comments below, in my asks on tumblr, or on twitter.
This American Life
“Ask a Grown-Up”
This week’s This American Life featured three stories: a story on the “Ask a Grown” Rookie Magazine series, a story on the Dallas Morning News and how it has struggled with hate mail, a story on Beautiful Stories from Anonymous Strangers host Chris Gethard being interviewed by his father, and a story on the passing of one of Ira Glass’s friends. Like many This American Life shows, this episode had curation problems. The most interesting and thematically accurate stories, the first and third, felt less cared for than the others. The story on the Dallas Morning News was both lackluster and irrelevant to the theme and other stories. The end piece about Glass’s friend was fine, if a little dull, but I also feel that Ira Glass more than deserves a bit of time on his own show to discuss the passing of a good friend. A fine episode, all in all, if not particularly memorable.
Hello from the Magic Tavern
“Season 2, Episode 1 – The Podcast”
This week’s episode of Hello from the Magic Tavern brought the listener back to the land of Foon with Arnie, Chunt, and Usidore [. . .] back in the Vermilion Minotaur after the Dark Lord’s defeat, which should not be a spoiler if you have ever listened to the show. Getting back to the standard episodes was well-timed, but all in all, the episode wasn’t a memorable one. Usually, Baron Ragoon is one of the funnier guest characters, but he doesn’t shine without the accompaniment of Squibbert. There were still a few strange, wonderful jokes thrown in, as there always is: the best pop culture pun in the episode was a reference to Howl’s Moving Castle (Usidore’s throwaway, “It’s so charming” in the background was the perfect addition), and Arnie saying, “Hello, new listener! This is what our ads sound like!” during the sponsors elicited a very delighted and confused laugh.
The Penumbra Podcast
“CANON: The Full Penumbra Tour, Presented by the Concierge”
This short, 6-minute episode begins with discussion of Juno Steel’s most important case to date, complete with hyperbolic description, only for the listeners to be whisked away by the concierge to be given a tour of The Penumbra. A standard setup for a joke, but executed well here. The concierge’s deadpan delivery of lines like, “We should be able to conclude our tour before the heat death of the universe,” and the repetition of the same guest repeating, “Hello!” from multiple rooms showcased all of the best things about The Penumbra. The humor was dry and fatalistic, an apathetic Doctor Who meets Welcome to Night Vale meets classic noir. The production, acting, and writing, were all stellar. Honestly, if each week only had short episodes from the Concierge like this one, I’d probably enjoy it a great deal more.
Beautiful Stories from Anonymous Strangers
“53. Cruise Ship Mafia”
This was a standard episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, with nothing much of note. Hearing from someone who worked in a band on a cruise ship was fun, but mostly this was a light episode that wasn’t incredibly memorable. After the last few weeks, though, an innocuous episode like this was needed.
“252- The Falling of the Lenins”
Ukraine’s push for decommunization is the focus of this week’s 99% Invisible, which gives insight on what it’s like being in a country undergoing a massive identity crisis. The episode talks about Ukraine’s independence and the struggles to find a national identity outside of Russian rule and communism. When decommunization–the effort to remove all Soviet structures and icons, most notably statues of Lenin–was made policy, conversations about progression, erasing the past, nostalgia, and international commerce came to a head with national protests. Ukranian history isn’t something most American listeners know much about (as noted in the podcast, many of us even still say “the Ukraine”), and this episode perfectly wove together history and structure in true 99% Invisible form.
Myths and Legends
“64-Frog Prince: Warts and All”
A good, standard Myths and Legends featuring two stories on the Frog Prince. Both stories were confusing, but that’s definitely more on the shoulders of the source material than the podcast. The standout line for this episode was, “I’d say, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ but I married a frog, so nothing’s really off the table anymore, is it?” All in all, a decent episode–good background listening, but nothing to be excited about.
Note to Self
“The Man Who Invented Facebook Ad Tracking Is Not Sorry”
Note to Self continues to amaze me with the guests it brings in. This week’s episode features the man who built the tool in Facebook that tracks your interests, race, gender, shopping history, etc. to target your ads. This episode was frustrating, but purposefully so: it shows the perspective of someone so diametrically opposed to what Note to Self tries to accomplish and, obviously, what most listeners of the show believe in. It was interesting to hear about the inner-workings of Facebook from the lens of an employee, but mostly I was intrigued by how much my opinions on ad tracking were challenged by Martínez’s defenses.
“A Bittersweet Persian New Year”
Norwuz Mubarak! This episode of Code Switch talks about the Persian New Year, celebrated for two weeks starting the first day of Spring. Half of this episode discusses the celebration itself, including a discussion Food & Wine‘s article on food served during the holiday. The second half of the podcast turned more serious with a discussion of celebrating such holidays in the midst of so much political unrest and fear from Muslim communities. The episode was the perfect combination of fun, silly, bittersweet, and personal. Code Switch is consistently one of the nonfiction podcasts I look forward to the most. I really can’t recommend this show enough.
“Dirty Projectors – Up in Hudson”
Sometimes, Song Exploder is the best way to introduce me to new music; dissecting songs makes me appreciate them much more than I originally would have, especially when the artists explain their choices. I probably would have really liked “Up in Hudson” but after this episode, I sure won’t. Listening to David Longstreth dissect his song with the most stereotypical artist apathy–including his discussion of blatantly stealing a beat and self-aggrandizing references to Kanye West and David Bowie–made for the most insufferable episode of Song Exploder I can remember. A real shame, given that song, outside of that context, would have sounded killer. An unfortunate hundredth episode.
“#38 We Grew Up Here”
Millennial has a tendency of being either too vague or too personal. In “#38 We Grew Up Here,” both are true at times, but Megan Tan ultimately strikes the perfect balance. This week’s story is that of Tan’s parents selling her childhood home, but it’s much more multifaceted than that. It’s a story of distance, nostalgia, denial, and hope for a renewed life, all told through the lenses of Tan’s mother, sister, and Tan herself. The fact that this episode is only about half an hour long is astounding to me. This episode also had by far the best production I’ve heard on an episode of Millennial. The bed music and sound effects in the first- and tail-end segments of the show set the tone beautifully, neither too saccharine nor too cold. It seems that since hiring an intern, Millennial has, appropriately, begun to mature.
The Bright Sessions
“Mini Episode 8 – September 30th, 2016”
While this would usually be an off week for The Bright Sessions, a wonderful and devastating mini episode featuring conversation between Damien and Mark was released instead. This episode pushed a little too far into what I call the “Misusing the Medium” Podcast Problem, but the dialogue was as genuine and emotional as the best episodes of this show. Seeing this vulnerable side of Damien was needed; Mark still holding him to higher standards allows Damien to be humanized, but not overly sympathetic–a thin but very important line, walked expertly by both the acting and the writing.
“Beyond the Iron Curtain”
Quite the week for Soviet history in podcasts. This week’s Imaginary Worlds discusses, specifically, Soviet science fiction–a genre I had no idea existed. The show also discusses censorship, how dystopias had to be written, and the increasing pressure on science fiction writers throughout the development of the Soviet Union. The discussion of American vs. Russian and Soviet science fiction in philosophy was incredibly interesting, though the episode did ultimately feel rushed. It could have gone for at least another ten minutes of discussion, but given the standard length of Imaginary Worlds episodes, I can imagine how that wouldn’t be feasible. A good episode, even if rushed.
The Magnus Archives
“MAG 57 Personal Space”
Another episode that I found myself drifting in and out of paying attention to. This episode, at least, did something interesting by delving more into the Alien side of horror. It’s just gotten tiresome, each week both needing to tie into something more cohesive and abandon cohesion entirely. I’m still not interested in the overarching plot; I’d much rather each piece have something very small that connects them than this coworkers story. I’m still going to continue listening in hopes that whatever this story leads to will be worth the time it’s taken.
Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips
“561 GG $10 Million Comma. Ambiguous Sentences. Tribute to Bill Walsh”
This episode features discussion of a news story many might have seen this past week about a $10 million lawsuit over an Oxford comma. This is one of those episodes, even within a grammar podcast, that is especially satisfying to those with an interest in grammar. I am personally a believer in descriptive grammar, but moments like these still delight me. While this episode might be a little alienating to those who haven’t taken intensive grammar courses, whereas most episodes of this show are helpful to anyone with grammar questions, the case is so interesting that it’s worth a listen regardless. The episode also pays tribute to the Washington Post copyeditor, Bill Walsh, who recently passed away. Walsh wrote books on grammar and also instituted new grammar rules, including updating the Washingon Post style guide to include the singular “they.”
My Brother, My Brother And Me
“PILOT: The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls 2, Chapter 1”
Usually I wouldn’t review My Brother, My Brother and Me because what does one say other than, “Oh, those McElboys, what will those scamps do next?” This episode, though, was the pilot of a new series they’re launching about how they are going to be in Trolls 2. Justin McElroy frames the episode as a very serious, almost exposé-styled show, which is the perfect contrast to the three of them laughing over the question, “Will Justin Timberlake be on this podcast?” I’ve only recently tried the McElroy podcasts after being underwhelmed by them, and I’m so happy to be coming back to them now. The McElroys will be in Trolls 2.
“Snap #807 – Born Identity”
This episode of Snap Judgment is short, but one of the most impactful I’ve heard in recent memory. I’ve had issues with Snap Judgment‘s staleness and curation, but this episode feels like it marks another upswing in quality. The first story is one of a man who was brought up being told he was Native American, only to find out that he was actually Mexican–and why he continued to identify for some time as Native American anway. The second story is about three mentally ill men who all thought they were Jesus Christ. Both stories are emotional, controversial, and based in humanity; there’s a subtext discussion of what identity is and how we construct it without being explicit, a la Invisibilia. Episodes like these remind me why, when people ask me about This American Life, I always bring up Snap Judgment. It’s episodes like these that remind me why Snap Judgment is still one of my favorites in the “curated stories” genre.
“Shots Fired: Part 2”
Continuing with their series from last week, Radiolab features a story about a woman who was mysteriously shot and killed in her home. This is a difficult episode, for many reasons. Clearly, the content itself is intense, but there’s also a distinct lack of resolution that makes the episode weigh even heavier. The weight there isn’t a bad thing; it’s a weight that should demand to be felt.
“The Bizarre, True-Crime Story of New England’s Seafood King”
“Bizarre” is certainly an accurate description for the first story in this episode. I had to listen to this show about three times before I fully understood what was happening. I don’t think this is the fault of the show, entirely; the content is, itself, so strange–that, and I kept being distractingly angry that they made me hear the phrase “The Codfather.” This first story felt akin to the This American Life episode “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms,” but packed into about ten minutes. I’d actually rather not summarize; you should just listen to it, if you can stomach such a pun. It’s unfortunate that the second half of the episode, a story on the book Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, absolutely paled in comparison and was rendered very forgettable.
Nothing on my radar today! Unfortunately, I’m not yet caught up with The Bridge-but hopefully I will be soon!