I’m going to put a few of my thoughts about serial fictional podcasts down first, but if you’re just here for my list, just scroll down.
On the Origin of Serial Podcasts
One of the best gifts I’ve ever received was a Fisher-Price tape recorder when I was a kid. It came with a cassette which instructed me how to make foley and tell a good story. When I wasn’t using the tape recorder to bug the house to try to learn what my Xmas presents would be, I was using it to tell stories.
I think radio dramas have been important to our culture because they remind us of the storytellers of old. Travelers–such as those I imagine I’m descended from–would go from village to village telling their tales, trading their board for a yarn about Odysseus or Anansi. With each telling, the storyteller would trim off the fat of the story and magnify the parts people liked until the story reached perfection.
With the invention of the radio drama, new storytellers would be brought into the home. Families would gather for mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. The long-form serial became popular because it encouraged listeners to come back through a series of suspense, and it allowed the writers to tell a more detailed an nuanced story than the might have been able to in a shorter time. While the majority of these stories were lost to history, thankfully many still survive and are available in a digital format.
Eventually this tradition was supplanted by the television, but there was something radio dramas had which TV never: the imagination. Sure, you could find a stick and pretend it was a Star Trek phaser with your friends, but the radio left so many blanks that the readers had to fill in with their own imaginations like they did with War of the Worlds.
When podcasts arrived, this tradition was revisited and many artistic storytellers were able to merge the ease of digital tools with the power of instant global distribution. While most podcasts are friends sitting around a microphone joking around (and some of these are better than you’d think, Jordan, Jesse, Go! come to mind), some podcasts are really cleverly crafted stories, paced carefully by master storytellers as of the days of old.
Let me share two final thoughts before I present my list:
- This list is tragically incomplete. I know there are a lot I haven’t heard. So therefore I’ll divide the list into ones that I can recommend and ones that come recommended. There are likely many gems that escaped both lists, so please add them to the comments and hopefully I’ll revisit this blog post next year with an update.
- I don’t think we’ve reached the golden age of serial podcasts yet. The best is probably yet to come, so start writing, and start recording yours! They sky’s the limit.
Presented in no particular order.
The Trojan War Podcast
Told by master storyteller Jeff Wright, this is pretty much podcast perfection. Most of us are familiar with the story of the Trojan War, but Wright has skillfully combined every major telling of the war into one perfect story. He goes into elaborate detail to set the stage, and clarifies things that I’d always found confusing about the epic.
Wright is often hired by schools to tell the epic of the Trojan War, and so he has whittled his version down to perfection. But as a bonus, and not to interfere with pacing, he will add a section at the end of each podcast going into more technical detail about a topic.
There are 20 episodes to this podcast, all available for free. It’s one of the best podcast experiences I’ve ever had and I will listen to it again. Not a month goes by where I don’t dream that Wright has produced the Odyssey as its sequel. Listen to it here.
Evening at the Talk House
I was confused when Jeremy Scahill of Intercepted, a podcast about deconstructing the news, executive produced and released a 3-part audio drama, but I quickly saw that this is a sophisticated, relevant, and well-produced masterclass in what podcasts can achieve.
I need to confess that I’m not done listening to this, but that’s only because there are only three parts and I want to savor it. This podcast can be uncomfortable at times, but it’s in the same way as some of Van Gogh’s paintings can be uncomfortable: our discomfort is caused by seeing what we’ve been trying to ignore. To put bluntly, it’s about authoritarianism, a topic we need more discussion of, not less, and ETH provides a good prompt for that discussion.
ETH is written by and starring the fantastic Wallace Shawn known for Princess Bride, Star Trek, and many other memorable roles, but I think this is what I’m going to remember him from now. It also features the voice talents of Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, John Epperson, Claudia Shear, Michael Tucker, and Annapurna Sriram.
You can listen to the podcast here for free.
I remember vividly a copy of Newsweek I received when I was living in Africa that had a review of Deadwood. I knew sight unseen that Deadwood would become my new favorite show, and when I got the chance to see it, it lived up to that feeling. I haven’t listened to Bronzeville yet, but I’ve been putting it off for the right moment because I know Bronzeville is going to be the same situation.
Bronzeville is the baby of Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, Tika Sumpter, and written by Academy Award® and BAFTA nominee Josh Olson. The cast for this podcast is so long and talented that it takes 5 pages to list them all and share their bona fides. This podcast explores the lives of Chicago’s African American residents and the lottery games.
I cannot wait to listen to this! You can get it here.
Mission to Zyxx
Okay, this one’s just weird. It’s an improv comedy scifi podcast. You might not like it, but you’ve definitely never heard anything else like it. I’ve only listened to the first season and I’m not sure if it’s a personal favorite, but I couldn’t leave it out of the list because it is incredibly innovative and really pushes the envelope to what’s possible with the podcast format. When I listen to MTZ, I think that we’ve not yet even tapped the surface of the creativity possible with podcasts.
It’s hard to really say what MTZ is even about–and it does mix it up quite a bit at the end of the first season–but I’ll give it a go. It’s a comedic plot not too dissimilar to formats like Star Trek, about a very unqualified Ambassador named Pleck Decksetter, an android named C-53, their security officer Dar, their sentient–and highly sexualized–space ship Bargie, and their bureaucrat Junior Missions Opperator Nermat Bundaloy. With MTZ, the story is less important than how it is told, as the cast improv off each other to create an interesting story which is then heavily produced with fancy sound effects. There is a guest star for each episode which drives the story.
Mission to Zyxx is not for everyone, but it is a labor of love, and if you enjoy improv as well as sci-fi comedy such as Red Dwarf or Other Space, check this out.
Another weird one I’m still in the process I’ve listening to. I’m a few episodes in, but still not entirely sure what the hell this show is about, but it is a fun ride and I’m curious what it’s going to turn into.
Like the other podcasts I’ve recommended, this is incredibly well-produced, and I think that’s the moral of this post. Bubble is written by Jordan Morris and has an incredibly talented cast. When it first began, I wasn’t a fan of the deadpan narration by Tavi Gevinson, but within a few minutes, I realized that was actually one of the joys of this program. She’s narrates a very strange world matter-of-factly as if there’s nothing strange about it at all.
Bubble is kind of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story, but in a dystopian utopia that has way too many references to the real world to be possible, which is okay because the narrator often breaks the fourth wall in good form. There are a lot of lovely quips and catch-them-while-you-can references that will make Bubble something you can listen to more than once. As the show progresses, I wonder if it’s going to turn into a social commentary on modern socio-political economics vis-à-vis forms such as the gig economy…or if it’s all just for shits and giggles with no message in the end. Neither would surprise me, and I don’t think I’d care either way.
Bubble is as fun as it is weird. Check it out here.
Podcasts I’ve Heard are Good
Here are a few long-format fiction podcasts I’ve not listened to yet, but have heard are good. If you like them or know of anything I’ve missed, please leave a comment below.
- Girl in Space
- The Truth
- The Walk
- Edict Zero Fis
- The Bright Sessions
- Hadron Gospel Hour
- Night Vale
- Wolf 359
- The Big Loop
- Alice Isn’t Dead
- Campfire Radio Theater
- Wynabego Warrior: The Tale of John Waynnabe
- 36 Questions
- The Once and Future Nerd
- Hello From the Magic Tavern
- Alba Salix
- We’re Alive: A Story of Survival
- The Amelia Project
- The Black Tapes
- Lesser Gods
- Greater Boston
- Station to Station
Update: Added the following after this was posted.
- The Message