“36 Questions” Review (No Spoilers)

Want a more updated version of this review?

You can find my 36 Questions relisten series here.

36 Questions is the most recent venture by Two-Up Productions, the team behind the acclaimed audio drama Limetown. The show is an audio drama podcast musical about an estranged husband and wife trying to reconnect over the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” a sort of  social experiment to see how quickly two people can become close. 36 Questions ended this week with its third of three acts, wrapping the show into about three hours.

This review will be as spoiler-free as I can manage, including events that happen early in the first episode. If you’ve already listened to the show, you can read a version with spoilers here. While this post will talk about 36 Questions as a production, the spoiler review will focus largely on the actual plot of the show. For a full discussion of the show, each review works as one half of a whole opinion.

Like Two-Up’s Limetown36 Questions is an innovative method of storytelling with gorgeous production, multifaceted characters, and a healthy combination of humor and drama. The show’s creators, Ellen Winter and Christopher Littler, wanted to produce a form of theater that was accessible to anyone, at any time–a shockingly egalitarian philosophy for such a historically exclusive, moneyed industry. The concept is a risky one: with so many musicals that rely on gorgeous visuals and the actors’ expressions, how could so much be conveyed through audio alone? One of the most important factors in 36 Questions‘s success, though, is how much faith Winter and Littler put into the audio medium. Each episode conveys its setting perfectly through description, sound effects, and in one particularly delightful song, choices in its orchestration. Being able to separate the voices from faces and their costumes allows the listener to imagine the ideal versions of the characters–something that not only adds to immersion but is thematically purposeful.

The songs of the show are a mix of jazz, ballad, and quirky indie-pop. When the songs are good, they’re infections, jaunty earworms that I’ve found myself listening to over and over while waiting for the show to conclude. Almost all of the songs fall into this earworm category, with a few standouts from each episode. The first episode’s first song, “Hear Me Out” is a gorgeously emotive and dynamic poppy ballad, while the last song in the episode, “For the Record” is a more off-kilter breath of much-needed levity. The second episode’s first song, “We Both,” is a coffee shop jazz dive into the questions themselves, showing off some of the specific-yet-relatable character writing the show pulls off so effortlessly:

We both are super good at Settlers of Catan.
We both become monsters when we lose.
We both think we have the (laughing) best worst name for a band.
We both check Twitter for our news–
There’s four [things we have in common].

We both say the other is better at cooking.
We both hate that kitchen island we built.
We both need a glass of water on the bedside table.
We both recycle purely out of guilt.

We both have dreams much bigger than ourselves;
We both think that’s how to live.
We both put up a fight for all the right reasons,
and we both eventually give.

When the songs fall flat, though, they’re striking disappointments in the mix of such good work. The show’s first attempted tearjerker for the husband, Jonathan Groff’s “Reality,” is dull and predictable, both in melody and in writing. The song brings none of the new, interesting energy that the others leading up to it did, even with Groff’s sincere performance. Up against the episode’s earlier “A Better Version,” another comedy-drama mix, “Reality” seems almost phoned in to put the focus back on Groff and the husband character.

The third episode has the most disappointing soundtrack of any of the episodes. While the final song, “The Truth,” is the most successful of the episode, it still pales in comparison to the songs from the two previous episodes. The third episode’s first song, “Answer 36,” has some of the most obvious lyrical writing and some of the strangest production choices. While initially moving, the song feels emotionally manipulative after the first 30 seconds or so–something that would have been an interesting choice except for how and when it occurs in the plot. The songs between those two are entirely forgettable, which is an especially frustrating waste of using Groff as the focus of the episode. Overall, the writing for the wife is consistently more interesting and emotional; the writers played favorites here, which is understandable given the wife’s charismatic energy, but leads to Groff always taking the backseat.

However, even at the songwriting’s worst, the performances by Groff and Jessie Shelton are both undeniably impressive. Both actors flit between distraught, desperate, funny, flirtatious, embarrassed, curious, and empathetic as easily as anyone who’s been in a relationship for a substantial amount of time. The writing adds the kind of specific character details that feel genuine to this relationship while being relatable enough for the emotions to carry, and Groff and Shelton imbue the lyrics with chemistry that is borderline tangible. Each actor seems to grasp their character as thoroughly as the writers do. While Groff’s performance can sometimes feel a little by-the-books, it makes sense for his character; the same can go for Shelton’s asynchronous, loose, casual performance.

I won’t discuss plot details for the show; I believe it should be listened to with as little information as possible, making the twists and turns more exciting. I found myself surprised continually throughout the episodes, with some of the biggest shocks coming in the third act. The pacing feels both rushed and sluggish at times, but given how much is conveyed over only three hours (when most audio dramas take years, or at least 10 episodes, to unfold), the pacing does the best it can. While I wanted deeper dives into both of the characters, especially in the second act, that desire lends itself to the idea the show is ultimately trying to convey.

In only three hours, 36 Questions is one of the best quick listens in the industry right now, even if the third act might leave the listener frustrated or ambivalent. There is no word yet on what Two-Up’s next endeavor will be, but 36 Questions cements Two-Up as one of the most exciting studios right now.

You can listen to 36 Questions in full on any podcast streaming site by searching “Two-Up.” The music is available on Bandcamp as well as most streaming sites.

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