In the End, Missing Richard Simmons Was Questionable, But Not Cruel

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

This article contains spoilers for the final episode of Missing Richard Simmons.

Missing Richard Simmons, the popular (and, some would say, morally suspect) podcast that sought to figure out what happened to the fitness icon following his sudden withdrawal from the public two years ago, published its sixth and final episode Monday. Curiously, that’s two days before the concluding installment was originally scheduled to go live, but, as host Dan Taberski says in the episode, “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens.”

This surprise early drop speaks to the tricky gambit the show set up for itself. Much like the first season of Serial, the 2014 blockbuster podcast to which Missing Richard Simmons has been compared, the show was constructed with a high-wire structure: It was being reported in real time as episodes rolled out across its six-week run, with Taberski launching the show before knowing how it was truly going to end.

And boy, what a high-wire act it turned out to be. The podcast pursued the story it wanted to tell despite mounting pressure from developments in the real world, some of which were caused by scrutiny that the show itself inspired. You might’ve seen the headlines: from the LAPD wellness check on Simmons earlier this month, to pushback from Simmons’s rep against claims made in the podcast (the conflict between Simmons’s housekeeper, Teresa Reveles, and friend, Mauro Oliveira, was a prominent flashpoint), to increasing criticism of the project’s ethics. Taberski did well at integrating any news into the podcast in a way that was organic to the story being told; if the show ever came close to derailing as a result of the real world, it certainly wasn’t obvious. That doesn’t mean, however, that the show walked away clean.

When I originally reviewed the podcast for Vulture earlier this month, I felt that the show had set itself a near-impossible task: Would Taberski and his producer, Henry Molofsky, stick the landing without being irredeemably exploitative or emotionally dishonest? Now, with the final episode in the bag, it’s safe to say that the show wasn’t exactly able to absolve itself of the ethical questionability of its enterprise.

Missing Richard Simmons kicked off by posing a tantalizing question, one that conjures a morally ambiguous environment and may feel familiar to true-crime consumers: What happened to Richard Simmons, who, without so much as a warning, inexplicably withdrew from the public and his friends? And, more important, is he okay? Is Simmons severely depressed, or even a captive of his housekeeper Teresa, as was purported by one of the conspiracy theories the show investigates?

As far as solving the mystery goes, I reckon a lot of listeners are going to be disappointed. Taberski was never able to talk to Simmons or get the answers he wanted and, aside from concluding that Simmons is healthy and presumably doing okay in his seclusion, the mystery largely remains unsolved. The show also proved to be frustrating to the very end, often conveying a surprising degree of callousness. The project played out beneath the specter of clinical depression (and lurking concern about the possibility of suicide), which often felt diminished by the show’s conversational, lighthearted tone. Missing Richard Simmons was a search party with the potential of incredibly high stakes, and it often felt like the weight of certain possible outcomes was never appropriately shouldered by Taberski and Co. If it was, it wasn’t adequately communicated, in which case the problem is localized to how the mystery is framed for others; it is hard to precisely assess how I, as a listener, am supposed to feel about much of it.

But all of this doesn’t take away from the fact that Missing Richard Simmons proved to be emotionally honest, at least in terms of Taberski’s sincere intent in creating it. As it unfolded, the podcast’s true narrative revealed itself: Ultimately, it’s a tale about a man learning to cope with a sudden loss, and doing so in a manner that’s messy, somewhat questionable, but ultimately genuine. Taberski considered himself a friend of Simmons, a member of a passionate tribe who felt they shared their lives with the fitness icon, and so all of this — the podcast, the spectacle, the grand gesture — ultimately feels like an understandable imbroglio from the perspective of anyone who has ever dealt with unexplained loss. The myriad questions prompted by Simmons’s withdrawal, as experienced by Taberski, are strikingly familiar. How do you figure out what someone would’ve wanted? How do you piece together a sense of will from shards of what you know about a person? And what is the line that you should not cross — the line beyond which you would be dishonoring that person?

Those are the questions that Taberski seems to be grappling with as he tries to give shape and meaning to a loss that he simply does not understand. It’s therapy-via-journalism — though the obvious complicating factor in all of this, of course, is the fact that Simmons is still very much alive. And that’s only the first order of complexity in the whole casserole of ethical questionability; you also have the fact that Simmons is a celebrity, that he long pursued attention (or so it seemed), and now, after all those years of seeking it, he no longer wants that attention.

It’s fair to ask what right Taberski had to kick up all this dust, drawing all this attention to Simmons for a sense of closure that could ultimately be called selfish. But as Taberski comes to say in the podcast, it could also be considered fair to ask what right Simmons had to deny closure to Taberski and his many peers, who have all long been beneficiaries (and dependents) of the man’s generosity, and whose adoration Simmons himself seemed to benefit from.

The suggestion of a transactional dynamic here provides us with tension in the way we square the project’s moral questions, and it brings it all back to a fundamental line of questioning that I laid out in my original review: When do we really give up full ownership of ourselves and our stories? Is it when we become a celebrity, a public figure? Or is it simpler than that: When we are merely cared for, or about, by another?

Missing Richard Simmons concludes its run as a sumptuous enigma, one that more or less earns its comparisons to the first season of Serial. Both shows closed out with fairly unsatisfying endings for the mystery-oriented, and neither program fully resolved the ethical tensions they contained — though I’d argue Serial did a much better job of it. Each podcast, in its own separate way, grappled with intense and powerful questions about how we should account for one another — how we should care.

It’s not entirely redeeming, but it does make the experience worthwhile.

Missing Richard Simmons Was Questionable, But Not Cruel