2017’s Best in Podcasts: Writing

As with all of Podcast Problems’s Best of 2017 posts, links will only be provided for episodes that can be listened to outside of the context of the shows as a whole; audio dramas, for instance, will only have links if the episode mentioned was their first episode. For more thoughts on this year in podcasts, make sure to subscribe to the Podcast Problems newsletter!

1. The Adventure Zone, “Ep. 69. Story and Song – Finale, Part Three”

It may seem a difficult case to make that an actual play D&D podcast could be considered “written,” but by the final episode of The Adventure Zone, the writing is evident. Even with a D&D podcast, the plot details and even many specific lines have been meticulously planned to convey the most profound emotional punch possible, and this episode supplies. After spending years with this world and these characters, “Ep. 69. Story and Song – Finale, Part Three” leaves the listener feeling nostalgic, hopeful, and more at peace than almost any other piece of media I can think of. Seeing the fates of every character doesn’t feel like tacky “10 Years Later” movie-end sequence; it feels like the only appropriate way to end the campaign. Many of the questions still remain once the arc is over (why the hell was Garfield making that?), giving this final episode a feeling that is nicely tied together without being overly explained.

2. 99% Invisible, “The Pool and the Stream”

“The Pool and the Stream” is the first episode I think of when I want to show what makes 99% Invisible such an impressive show. The writing, in particular, is absolutely hypnotic. The listener follows the story from one point to the next with a fluidity that perfectly mirrors the subject of the episode: pools. The research flows through so many different places and moments and history, but eventually, everything comes back together in a cycle that feels almost poetic. S-Town has been the go-to when discussing how “literary” nonfiction podcasts can feel, but “The Pool and the Stream” manages to evoke a Whitman-esque notion of connectivity while still feeling firmly nonfiction.

3. The Bright Sessions, “43 – Former Patient (#11-A-7)”

“43 – Former Patient (#11-A-7)” may be the most tender episode of The Bright Sessions to date, which is saying quite a lot given the show’s focus on vulnerability. In this episode, Dr. Bright talks with her former patient, Caleb, and that’s all. There’s no plot building in this episode. There’s no worries about shady agencies or manipulative stalkers. There’s a therapist talking to her former patient who has become more like a little brother, a friend. Even with the lack of plot and the emphasis on heart, the episode never feels saccharine, and it never feels like filler: The Bright Sessions has always been about its characters, and that shines through so beautifully in this episode.

4. The Heart, “Advance”

The Heart‘s “No” miniseries was one of the most uncomfortable, raw, and important listens of 2017, starting with “Advance.” Please note that this episode is very NSFW, as it’s a retelling of host Kaitlin Prest’s early experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The episode captures the feeling of being a teenage girl better than most young adult fiction while still clearly being written for adults. The writing is incredibly intimate and anxiety-inducing, transporting the listener directly into the situation.

5. 36 Questions

I’ve written about 36 Questions before, but it bears repeating: the amount of character 36 Questions manages to pack into about three hours is astounding. By the end of the show, the listener knows Judith and Jace seemingly as well as they know each other–which is to say, the listener knows them in a way that feels much more real than it is. While the ending of 36 Questions is polarizing, the choices made in the final episode by the writers are brave ones, as are the choices for how to convey these very complex, flawed characters. The writing has the perfect amount of quirk to sound unique but not twee; the perfect amount of humor to humanize the characters but not make them too broad; the perfect amount of drama to make the story heartbreakintg without being as manipulative as some of the characters may or may not be.

6. Wolf 359, “Mission Mishaps: No Complaints”

Like The Bright Sessions‘s “43 – Former Patient (#11-A-7),” Wolf 359‘s “Mission Mishaps: No Complaints” is a study in tenderness. Unlike The Bright Sessions, though, “tender” has never been an adjective easily attached to Wolf 359, and especially not with the characters featured in this mini-episode. “Mission Mishaps: No Complaints” is a short, quiet, sweet character study between Colonel Warren Kepler and explosives expert Daniel Jacobi–two more-or-less antagonists in the show. The episode calls upon so many moments from the rest of the show but recontextualizes them within the relationship between the two characters (however the listener may interpret the relationship). The episode is shockingly moving, adding a new layer of humanity to the two.

7. What’s the Frequency, “1: Static”

What’s the Frequency‘s most impressive writing feature might not be the words written, but instead, the ones that aren’t. While many non-visual mediums choose to set the scene with expository details, narration, or characters explaining action in dialogue, What’s the Frequency dares to do none of that. Instead, the writing trusts the audience to understand whats going on, making for some of the most immersive audio I’ve heard in ages. What’s the Frequency slips between scenes without holding the audience’s hand, begging a second or third listen to catch everything. With What’s the Frequency, this doesn’t feel like a frustration or a chore, but a sort of enticing game.

8. The Strange Case of Starship Iris, “Episode 1: Violet Liu”

I’ve written about Starship Iris in length, but like with 36 Questions, it bears repeating. The pacing of the writing in this episode is stunning, going from breakneck panic to slow, mournful discussions to quick, witty, charming dialogue. The chemistry between the characters is tangible, largely due to the writing. The twist in the episode’s conclusion is one that is foreshadowed but still feels surprising and a bit heartbreaking. The writing could easily make this a standalone episode, but it sets up the characters and the world of the rest of the podcast perfectly.

9. The Big Loop, “Ep 1: The Studio” 

The Big Loop is one of my biggest surprises of the year, and I had difficulty choosing an episode to feature on this list; all of them, so far, have had such beautiful writing. In its first episode, “Ep 1: The Studio,” The Big Loop walks the line between uncomfortably intimate and Black Mirror surreality effortlessly. The episode feels somewhere between a heartbreaking ghost story and the New York Times‘s “Cat Person” piece. At times, the writing is so uncomfortable it’s as hard to keep listening as it is to stop, with such a voyeuristic narrator–and that makes it extremely authentic, moving, and relatable.

10. The Once and Future Nerd, “What Used to Be Enough, Pt. 5”

This episode of The Once and Future Nerd feels almost like taking a few steps away from an impressionist painting to see what all those brush strokes are actually comprising. So many details from the show’s plot come together beautifully in this episode without feeling contrived or overly convenient. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. The story becomes larger while still being rooted in the characters, and the social commentary weaves into the dialogue without feeling too on-the-nose.

Which podcasts had your favorite writing of 2017? Please leave a comment below! Podcast Problems will be releasing more Best of 2017 lists throughout December 2017. You can find all of the lists here. Make sure to check back throughout the month for more!

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