“The Magical History of Knox County”‘s First Season a Refreshing Mystery in a Fantasy World

The Magical History of Knox County is a seralized audio drama that released its first season in full on October 30th, 2017. The Magical History of Knox County is a comedy/drama that falls somewhere between magical realism and straight fantasy. The description from the show’s Soundcloud reads as such:

The Magical History of Knox County follows Mordecai Dogwood as he takes over for the missing host of a popular public radio show in rural Ohio – only to discover a magical ecosystem hiding in plain sight. With the help of a station tech, a park ranger, a pair of biologists, and a giant toad, Mordecai finds himself taking on responsibilities that were definitely not in his job description.

Knox County falls into the audio drama medium with its audio-from-a-fiction-radio-show setup, but feels like a huge departure with its genre. The story is full fairytale when it comes to names, creatures, and characters. There’s a character who is a “Riddle Toad.” There are magical creature experts named Lumily and Divodit. There’s magical trees, sigils, and mystery. The narrator, though first-person, often feels closer to that of an audiobook than, say, Welcome to Night Vale‘s Cecil, though the comparison is much closer thematically. The show isn’t like so many audio dramas we hear today. It isn’t horror, and it isn’t science fiction, and it isn’t dark, and it isn’t a straight comedy, either. What it is is extremely refreshing.

The show begins with Mordecai Dogwood taking on his role as the host of the in-universe radio show, The Magical History of Knox County, after its original host, Abigail Redwine, goes missing. Initially, one would expect the show to fall directly into mystery, using fantasy tropes to be subversive or ironic. The setup is right there: there’s a mystery of a missing person, and given the trend of most media in the current zeitgeist, that means the nostalgic tropes at play are going to be contrasted with something grim and steeped in gritty realism. Knox County stands out by, instead, eschewing this trend and sticking with genuine heart. For the bulk of the first season’s episodes, the mystery looms in the background, but the forefront is dedicated to worldbuilding, character building, a general air of whimsy, and some good laughs.

Of course, as the plot progresses, the mystery does come to the forefront, and the show gets substantially darker. Still, though, Knox County never veers into “gritty” territory. The plot takes its time to build, ensuring the show doesn’t have to keep topping itself in order to have an emotionally substantial season finale. This also makes the direction of the plot genuinely surprising. I didn’t expect the plot to gown down the paths it did, though on a second listen, the foreshadowing is clear. When things do get more dire, it feels surprising and suspenseful, but it also feels organic–and, more importantly, it feels fun. The show packs emotional punches, absolutely, but it isn’t looking to rip the listener apart. It could just be the climate of 2017, but I found myself delighted by a show that aimed to be fun. The first season being released in full also means it’s immediately bingeable, though I listened to the episodes over the course of about a week. I enjoyed having the plot stretched out, but I can imagine the pacing being even more exciting when listened to in full.

The characters themselves are interesting, strange, and endearing. Dylan Gregory’s Mordecai usually plays the straight man and the audience’s perspective into the world of Knox County, but he has this bubbly, curious, excitable air about him that makes him a captivating protagonist. Gregory’s voice work manages to feel quick and excited without ever performing too quickly. Aforementioned Lumily and Divodit, played by Shannon E. Wright and James Currie, respectively, initially feel too quirky in their writing and voices to be anything other than side characters, but both actually join the center stage with Mordecai seamlessly. Cora Cull as Ned Jones, Mordecai’s coworker, plays her role more seriously than the others–something that pays off towards the end of the first season. Even Riddle Toad, as played by Samuel Larson, manages to push the boundaries of his over-the-top accent and affectations.

It’s a testament to the show that both the straight-laced seriousness of Ned and the overdrama of Riddle Toad can exist within the universe, and neither seem out of place. The choice of going the route of fantasy allows much more freedom for the show, both in plot details and in its writing. Mordecai often narrates events as they happen–something that usually takes me out of a podcast immediately–but here, it feel natural. The conceit of a radio show helps the narration feel smooth, of course, but most of the credit goes to the genre; the narration feels like the listener is being read a fairytale instead of having a scene explained to them. Similarly, the dialogue is very clean with little overtalk. This, too, feels like a feature of the genre, adding to the tone of the show rather than detracting.

The show isn’t without faults, of course, but I found myself struggling to find many to speak on. Initially, I did think that the main characters were all played by two or three people with different accents put on. The timbres of the actors’ voices are all very similar, but the distinction in accent is enough to make sure the characters aren’t confused with each other. There’s some moments of popping plosives and the like, but I found myself enjoying the show so easily that I was quickly able to forgive them.

With more science fiction and horror shows always sprouting up in the audio drama world, I’m so grateful for shows like The Magical History of Knox County to break the genre mold and truly embrace doing something different. Knox County‘s first season is one I am sure I will find myself returning to consistently when I want a break from space operas, along with shows like The Once and Future Nerd, as I eagerly await season two.

You can find The Magical History of Knox County on their website. Their first season can be listened to in full on Soundcloud or any podcast streaming platform.

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