There are many notes of minor exceptionalism underpinning the podcast Nancy (now available on Apple and Spotify). It’s a series that positions itself as a platform for “provocative stories and frank conversations about the LGBTQ experience today” from one of the biggest public-radio stations in the country, WNYC, home of such podcast favorites like On the Media and 2 Dope Queens. It’s hosted by two Asian-Americans, the wonderfully affable Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, which is something, speaking as a yellow person myself, that rarely happens in the institutional ranks of big podcasting. And to top it all off, Nancy is a surprisingly uncensored production, one that boldly goes places I never would’ve expected from a public-radio product. For a legacy shop like WNYC, that’s a triumph on its own. And for a world such in need of earnest joy, it’s a balm.
So those are all the things that make Nancy, a public-radio podcast in 2017, interesting on a theoretical level. In practice, though, the show’s noteworthy qualities aren’t quite as cut and dried.
As a narrative documentary podcast about the LGBTQ experience, the series is a solid showcase that doesn’t bring anything particularly revolutionary to the form. Nancy is a production in the classic storytelling mode, where stories are executed in straightforward fashion with what are now fairly predictable beats. It doesn’t possess the sonic electricity of Radiolab, nor does it effectively trade in the rich sense of emotional ambience often achieved by Death, Sex, and Money. I suppose there’s merit to presenting these generally under-covered stories in such traditional ways; if you’re willing to reach a bit, you could even call that subversive.
Where Nancy does shine is in its ability to convey an empathetic sense of how it feels to be young, searching, and a work in progress. It does this often, and it does this very well. The podcast is at its best when it’s a personal narrative-driven showcase of the expansive in-betweenness of adolescence, when it slips into a mode that gently celebrates the hard-fought process of searching and becoming exactly who you are. Sometimes that comes in the form of coming out to your Asian mother, other times it takes the shape of the sonnets of a younger person.
When it strays from that mode — as it did with its episode on gay Republicans, which is a more straightforward journalistic effort in collaboration with BuzzFeed News that saw the team attend Republican conventions — Nancy feels unmoored. In that episode, though the tape and insights were sometimes genuinely fascinating, the emotional and educational returns were less tangible.
It’s worth noting that storytelling podcasts tend to be somewhat all over the place in their opening volleys. Not to press the metaphor too much, but young podcasts are searching for their identities, voices, and places in the world in the same way as just about everybody else. The thing about Nancy is that it’s already pretty clear what the team’s particular strengths are.
There are also some puzzling aesthetic tensions within the podcast. It’s clear from Nancy’s marketing materials that it’s being framed as a show that operates at a specific kind of optimistic pitch. That’s a perfectly fine creative decision to make, but it does feel like it comes into conflict with the vibe of the show’s central personalities. Tu and Low are charming hosts, and they possess a cerebral quality that comes through in the way they carry stories and build interviews around guests. That approach gives Nancy a satisfying kind of thinkiness, but it’s one that rubs up against the overly saccharine tone (filled with fizz and bubbliness, almost insistently so) of the show’s backdrop, creating a notable barrier for emotional entry.
Yet despite its uneven qualities and formal uninventiveness, there’s something special about this podcast. A lot of that is linked directly to a thread that ties the show’s stories together beyond its LGBTQ mandate: It’s a sense that there are endlessly unfolding nuances in the story of a person, no matter how their narratives or experiences might be categorized. You can have a show that serves as a platform for stories about the LGBTQ experience, sure. But no two stories about coming out to your Asian mothers are the same — a point underscored in the show’s pilot episode — just as no two stories about the political lives of gay men are the same. Our lives are determined by many interactions of the innumerable little details that make us who we are, and that sense of infinite variability is something Nancy conveys with such verve and power that it elevates the whole enterprise toward something far more than the sum of its parts.