For the Record: A “36 Questions” Relisten | Act I

For the Record is a relisten and recap series of 36 Questions. You can see the full series here. 36 Questions was created by Ellen Winter and Chris Littler.

Act I

An embed to RadioPublic’s direct link for the episode, which you can also find here.

So, what happens in this episode?

A phone voice memo starts up. A children’s choir is singing in the background and a man, Jase, asks a woman, Natalie, why she’s recording. A driving single-note piano beat starts under the dialogue with a floating melody coming in and out on top. A new voice memo, and Natalie leaves herself a note on the names in a family tree. A new voice memo, and Natalie is getting verbal confirmation for the record (foreshadowing for a later song) that Jase is fine with a small wedding–which he says he is, but he’s not sold on having no guests yet. A second, slightly deeper melody joins the first over the single-note beat in a sort of call and response. A cello builds and then cuts off abruptly. Another voice memo, and this time, Natalie is capturing a moment of quiet and beauty at a waterfall. Jase finds her recording and asks if she ever listens back (foreshadowing a song in the third act). She says she might: “I guess when I miss it.”

The next voice memo feels different off the bat. The piano and cello drop out, leaving only Natalie’s voice and the sound design of a storm. Natalie gives the date and time–6:43PM, July 28th, 2009–and says she’s going on the record. And then, Natalie says:

“My name . . . is Judith Ford. And I have been lying to my husband since the moment I met him. I’m going on the record here to make this right. To remember.”

She says that she left her charger at Denny’s, so she won’t have much time to “convince him.” Driving down a small road, she jokingly (and diegetically) sings to herself, “Oh, I’m gonna die out here.” She finds the cabin-like house she’s been looking for, and the cello builds as she gets out of her car. Inside, someone is doing work in the house with a power tool. She knocks on the door and gets no response, but puts an envelope through the mail slot, still talking to the person inside the house as she’s bitten by mosquitoes. Growing impatient, she says that the person she can hear inside is either her husband, Jase Connolly, or a stranger in his childhood home–but either way, she’d like to be let in.

This starts the first song of 36 Questions, “Hear Me Out.”

In the song, Judith explains that she’s here to answer his questions about her: “You deserve to get to know / The person you’re trying your damnedest to let go. / I know you care.”

Eventually, begrudgingly, Jase does let Judith inside. A record skips in the background as Jase walks away to continue doing housework. Judith is greeted by a duck, Henry, and Jase explains that he found the duck on his porch during the storm, brought him in, named him Henry, and that Henry is very perfect. This is irrefutable. Jase explains to Judith that he cares less that she made up a fake name and more that she lied to him for two years. He notices that she’s recording and gets frustrated, but she deftly distracts him with more questions about Henry. As Jase softens up, falling into patterns that will become more and more glaring as the story continues, the skipping record player comes into sharper focus in the mix.

Judith says that she only came out here to ask him for one thing. Jase is skeptical, but they’re cut off by the sounds of several home improvement projects going wrong and crashing to the ground. Judith asks why Jase’s rich moms aren’t paying for these renovations as things keep going disastrously wrong inside the house, and Jase says they don’t know he’s been trying to fix it up.

A casual drum beat joins the skipping record player, seguing into the next song: “One Thing.”

The song is a long list of projects Jase has taken on to fix up the house–everything from fixing mold to taking care of a mouse to trying to fix the doorbell that randomly dings when it rains–for the purpose of accomplishing one goal: forgetting about Natalie/Judith. Judith tries to interrupt, saying that she really only has one thing for him to do, but he consistently takes the song back over with an ever-growing list of things to do. Eventually, Judith succeeds in interrupting, saying it sounds like his lack of control for his feelings for her is manifesting at him trying to find something he can control, like seemingly-simple housework projects (which, of course, he is also failing to control). Jase protests, but eventually Judith convinces him to hear her out: “But all I am asking / Is for you to do the first thing / Which could also be the last thing / That you do with me.”

The two of them open the envelope that Judith put through the mail slot when she arrived. It contains documents, matches, and Jase’s wedding band. Judith explains that she wants them, together, to go back through The 36 Questions That Lead to Love together and torch her fake documents and IDs. The concept is that they’ll give Natalie Cook a viking funeral, and Judith will let Jase ask her, as herself, the 36 questions–which is how they fell in love in the first place. She claims to have no ulterior motives, to use the questions as a way for Jase to get the truth behind the lies, but Jase sees through this immediately.

Cue the third song of Act I, “Natalie Cook.”

When Jase asks her why Natalie even existed at all, Judith explains:

The person who I was
On the day you and I met
Was deeply ashamed of who she had become
So deeply ashamed of what she’d done

And when you showed her questions
The 36 questions
She looked ahead and saw
Who she wanted to be

As Judith finishes, “this person named Natalie,” a layer of harmony using her own voice is added on top of her vocal melody. As Jase strikes the match and sets the documents aflame, those vocal harmonies return in high, ghostly repetitions of “Natalie, Natalie.”

Jase empties the bucket with the scorched documents outside, but then points out that now, she has no way to leave. She doesn’t have a license, credit cards, or an ID–so she can’t drive to a hotel and stay there instead of the house. Judith says that she does have a passport with her legal name on it, and while Jase wants to see it, he also doesn’t know why he wants to see it. Judith suggests that they do the 36 questions so he can properly meet her, Judith Ford. Judith coaxes, and then goads, him into answering the first question of the 36 questions:

“Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”

Initially, Jase tries to respond, “Michelle Obama,” but Judith calls him on it and he concedes, leading into the next song, “Judith Ford.”

Jase admits that he wants to know and understand her, understand why–and how–she could have lied to him for the two years of their relationship. Jase shows his insistence on honesty coming clean about her being the only one he’d want to talk to right now. This doesn’t mean he’s won over by her, though. When Judith tells him she’d want to have him over for dinner, he curtly responds, “Well obviously, Judith, yes.”

But the storm picks up, and the two scamper back inside, hand in hand, laughing. Jase finds Henry and makes sure he’s alright as the ceiling to the house starts splintering. As the tension between Judith and Jase gets a little less severe, and both of them are dripping wet from the rain, Judith capitalizes on the moment to flirt with Jase, which he shoots down. As she goes to change, Jase confesses that her flirtation wasn’t necessarily lost on him in the final song of the episode, “For the Record.”

Judith, meanwhile, confesses to Henry that yes, she is a compulsive liar–“I guess I’m still afraid that I might lie,” she says–and that she really didn’t think Jase would be this easy to manipulate. Both of them see the 36 questions as something else: for Jase, a lifeline; for Judith, a passtime. The episode ends with the clink of glasses as they start drinking.

The truth

  • Natalie Cook: Natalie Cook is a fake identity for Judith Ford, thought up on the spot when Judith met Jase in a park.
  • Judith Ford: The real, but still mysterious, identity of the woman married to Jase. Judith Ford is played by Jessie Shelton.
  • Jase Connolly: Jase Connolly is an elementary school music teacher married to Natalie Cook, the fake identity of Judith Ford. Jase Connolly is played by Jonathan Groff.
  • Henry: Henry is Jase’s very good pet duck.

Does it hold up?

The short answer? Yes, absolutely, undoubtedly.

The long answer? Mostly.

Relistens always give me time to really sink into every single part of an episode, pay attention to the things I wouldn’t, in order to pick them apart. I listened to this episode about seven times for this post, and at no point was I bored or annoyed by listening. Instead, I felt that each new listen gave me something new to analyze–how the drums that start off “For the Record” sound like an insistent heartbeat that Jase can’t ignore, how the ascending melody of the chorus to “Natalie Cook” sounds like sparks from the fire floating into the sky but the song ends on a lower note, how the obnoxiously robust sound effects in “One Thing” put the listener directly into Jase’s cluttered mind.

The problem is that listening so closely always also brings out everything that makes an episode or a series fall short. These can be nitpicky (the sound effects for some of the crashes in the house were jarringly fake), but they can also creep into the concept itself.

So, let’s talk about the framing device of 36 Questions being conveyed over voice memo. Two-Up consistently has a framing device issue in its fiction. Some of this is a product of its time, but even upon its release, the conceit behind Judith documenting everything via voice memo felt forced. What if Jase got her phone and stumbled upon one of them with her notes to self? How does she do this so obsessively but also leave her charger somewhere?

36 Questions is wise in really leaning into this device, making it a feature of the story itself. The lampshading works to some degree, and the recordings themself become an important plot feature, but it still feels like a distraction in a good deal of the spoken dialogue, a sort of apology for form. It’s a conceit that asks an awkward suspension of disbelief, and each time it comes up, the ease of answering that ask varies heavily. Sometimes, the recordings feel fine. Sometimes, they feel bizarre.

Luckily, 36 Questions is absolutely agile. The second you find yourself rolling your eyes at the recorder, you’ll be whisked away into an incredible song, a devastatingly charismatic performance, or meticulous detail work into how the scene is set.

Shelton and Groff are both musical theater veterans, so it’s no surprise that they carry not just the dialogue, but also the songs. Still, their dynamic together is the product of some of the best casting I’ve heard in a podcast or in a recording of a theater production. Shelton delivers Judith’s self-awareness with a bluntness that manages to be charming. The hesitation in Judith’s sincerity paired with her quick-witted informality keeps her motives, ethics, and downright likeability in flux. Groff brings a naivete and earnestness to Jase that makes him impossible not to root for–whether that means getting back with Judith or staying far, far away from her–even when it’s clear that his resolve will almost definitely break.

36 Questions, in its first act, is both a product of its time and years ahead of its time. Breaking expectations for form, genre, and levels of intimacy for the time in most fiction podcasts, 36 Questions is similar to the fiction productions happening now or in recent years like The Shadows versus the other fiction podcasts being made when it was released. Still, some shoddy sound design and a framing device only as successful as the line reminding the listener of its existence keep some of the first act anchored squarely in the past.

The 36 Questions

You can find the full list of the 36 Questions here.

  1. “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”
    • Jase: “Michelle Obama. I would have dinner with Juuuuuuuuudith”
    • Judith: “It’s you.”
  2. ” Would you like to be famous? In what way?”
    • Not answered in the audio

Hear me out

  • The composition in 36 Questions has always reminded me of the off-kilter, folksy, jazzy vibe of Anaïs Mitchell’s works. Lo and behold, Jessie Shelton was in the off-Broadway production of Hadestown and is now the swing for Eurydice in the Broadway production. A part of me was a little devastated that when I saw Hadestown, the role was being performed by the (amazing, of course) Eva Noblezada and not Shelton.
  • For most people not terribly familiar with musical theater, Jonathan Groff was known best as Kristoff from Frozen when 36 Questions was released. Hopefully he gets a bit more musical attention in the sequel.
  • The waterfall Judith records in the first scene is Snoqualmie in Washington State.
  • Judith encloses a scientific study in her envelope of documents. The study is “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings” by Arthur Aron et. al., published in 1997. The study was to examine closeness between strangers and originated the 36 questions; however, it should be noted that “the goal of the procedure was to develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship.”
  • When Judith sees Henry, she asks if they’re on the fourth season of Friends. Judith is referencing a season three episode, “The One with the Chick and the Duck.”
  • Judith is a little hurt by Jase’s insinuation that she is “a Rachel,” a common way of categorizing people by which character from Friends they most reflect. I’m not a Friends person, per se, but I’d posit that Judith is not a Rachel, but a Chandler.
  • Jase, meanwhile, is a Monica.
  • Jase says that he would have dinner with Juuuuuuuudith over Rihanna, but given Rihanna’s second coming via Fenty, I have to wonder if his answer would have changed by now.
  • Judith is wearing a hat. I just want to know what kind of hat.
  • When Jase sees that Judith’s passport was issued in Arizona, he asks if she’s really good at golf. This is a reference to the Phoenix Open in the PGA Tour. As a native Arizonian, however, I can say that it is too the hell hot here for locals to ever actually golf.

For all of the 36 Questions recaps, start with this post, or see all of the posts in the series here.

Listen to 36 QuestionsApple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Website | RSS

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