Slow Burn, “Martha”
I’m going to sneak this one in here because the limited-series podcast remains ongoing, and as a result didn’t end up making my other list. “Martha” is the opening chapter of Slate’s new series about the Watergate scandal, which seeks to answer an exceptionally pertinent question: If we were living through another Watergate, would we know? How? I’m still trying to figure out if the show as a whole lives up to its ambitions — and if so, what it says about us — but this episode was enormously fascinating in its steady pace of storytelling, the way it endeavors to capture the sense of living in a specific moment in time, and in the way it excavates a historical figure who might be considered forgotten by many.
36 Questions, “Part 1”
The thing I liked about Two-Up Productions’ attempt at a podcast musical was the tightness of its experimentation, though in the end, I felt it didn’t take me anywhere particularly new. But the thing I loved about the show was the ebullience of its promise. Featuring the talents of Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff and newcomer Jessie Shelton, 36 Questions tells the story of a couple on the brink of a divorce — following the revelation of what’s a pretty melodramatic secret by one of the two parties — who tries to rebuild their marriage through the deployment of the titular question set designed to help two people fall in love. Its central idea could’ve been explored more robustly, but I remain sun-kissed by the spirit of its opening salvo.
30 for 30, “On the Ice”
In 1995, a classified listed in the Daily Telegraph read: “Women Wanted to Walk to the North Pole.” No experience required, the ad adds, before stating: “They will wonder every 10 steps what they are doing, but they have an opportunity to take part in an epic adventure.” Two years later, the first all-woman expedition to the North Pole would kick off with a rag-tag team bringing together a variety of characters. Rose Eveleth’s retelling of this fascinating journey is a delight, with great interview tape of the trekkers giving life to the narrative. Also unforgettable is how the episode conjures a world of ice through pacing, atmosphere, and shrewd choices in sound design.
Reply All, “Skip Tracer, Part 1”
When Reply All goes in for a big swing, they really go for it. “Skip Tracer” sees producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni embedding herself with Michelle Gomez, a skilled bounty hunter, to track down a fugitive who has a connection to the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. Two things about this episode keep me coming back to it: First, how Pinnamaneni exquisitely trains her focus on Gomez’s process as the best in a hard business, and secondly, how Skip Tracer further opens up what a Reply All story can possibly be.
74 Seconds, “The Traffic Stop”
An entire universe was packed into the 74 seconds that led up to Philando Castile’s shooting by the police officer Jeronimo Yanez, which took place at a Twin Cities neighborhood traffic stop in July 2016: the historical racial dynamics of a nation, the socio-political environment of a neighborhood, the personal psychology of an individual conditioned within the law-enforcement structure. This episode of MPR News’ 74 Seconds, which was built to cover Yanez’s trial, illustrates in brutal detail the fateful moment when all those threads culminated into a specific instance of a long-running tragedy.
Death, Sex, and Money, “Our Student Loan Secrets, Part 1”
The modern American plague of student loan debt can inflict a kind of violence to a person’s self-identity: It paralyzes, blinds, haunts. For some, its shadow looms for decades, and it is compressed and filed away as a dark, shameful secret. It is a national crisis. Here, Anna Sale leans into the fundamental strengths of her mighty show — listening, opening, revealing — to build a potent space for collective grieving. To know that others are burdened with the same feelings is liberating, to witness the specificities of others is clarifying.
The Daily, “Planning the Perfect Death”
One of the things I’ve come to really appreciate about The Daily is the way it figured out a relationship with time, and how it sometimes presses against that to tell different kinds of stories. With a newsy product, there is often the tendency to be driven by the incrementals, but that is just one of many possible moves: You can, for example, eschew the latest Trump scandal to tell a universal story about the way we say good-bye. This dispatch, which documents one man’s choice to hold a living wake where he would then go into the process of his own death, is delicate, gutting, and beautiful.
Longform, “Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah”
What a year to talk about the fundamental nature of a country. You could make the argument that Longform’s interview with Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ preeminent Trump documentarian, was the podcast’s standout episode of the year. But I’m inclined to see that interview as an artifact specific to its moment in time, while the show’s sit-down with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who wrote the stellar “A Most American Terrorist” for GQ, is an artifact of an American eternity. As Ghansah walks you through her harrowing process of reporting on Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, one is not only confronted with the sheer darkness that lies in the heart of society, but also the responsibility and burdens of a journalist working in that society. This interview is piercing, and unmissable.
This American Life, “Lost in the Proud”
The oily nexus of toxic masculinity and the politics of oblivion constitutes the subject of this intriguing This American Life joint, where listeners follow the intrepid Zoe Chace down the rabbit hole of a loose “fraternity” known as the Proud Boys that involves, among other things, ritualistic punching, masturbation abstinence, and a coalition in the midst of fracture. “Lost in the Proud” is an unsettling but thoroughly absurd window into a type of radicalization, one that inhabits the deceptively pedestrian corners of society. Side note: I’m buying as much Zoe Chace stock as possible.
S-Town, “Chapter II”
A reader phrased it this way, and I related to it so much I’m gonna straight up use it here: I will always remember what I was doing, and how it felt, when I heard the last ten minutes of this episode. That was the precise moment S-Town shed its initial true-crime conceit to reveal the tragic truth of its enterprise; when it ceased being an intriguing Dazed and Confused–esque walkabout and listeners were struck with the realization that they were in for so much more than they first thought.