Perhaps in the same way that the past is a foreign land, so too is the inner universe of every intimate relationship. Each one develops its own history, norms, and language, the details of which can seem at first glance to be utterly baffling to the world outside of it. Worse, they can make you cringe. The Shadows, a new fiction podcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, offers an intimate look into a specific instance of two people who slip into a relationship. The result is exceptionally cringeworthy, and I don’t mean that as a slight. The podcast is extremely effective to the point of physical unpleasantness.
Written, directed, and starring Kaitlin Prest, The Shadows is a close portrait of a relationship between two young artists, which means it is both simple and infinitely complex at the same time. The story follows a semi-fictional version of Prest, who in this universe is an aspiring puppeteer in Montreal. She encounters Charlie, a slightly more accomplished puppeteer, and they develop a romance, though not immediately a relationship. Prest is initially skeptical of monogamy; besides, there’s another man in the mix. He’s really struggling with paralyzing self-doubt. Things gets messy, things get settled. Love is sparked, made, earned. The two begin to build a world for themselves. They also fight. This isn’t the kind of story that can get meaningfully spoiled, but I still won’t spoil it. It’s safe to say, though, time passes, and the relationship goes where it needs to go.
Taking place over six episodes, The Shadows is charming, occasionally funny, and uncannily believable. The podcast presents these characters on their own terms, warts and all, and though it is ultimately a piece of fiction, Prest appears to be swinging hard for a simulacrum of reality. This is how people sound when they speak to each other late at night. This is how someone messes up a relationship. This is how it sounds when people have sex. The Shadows is packed with moments that feel a little too close to life — for some people of a certain generation and class, anyway — and, as such, delivers several instances where the shock of recognition feels like a jolt of embarrassment. It was probably unwise for me to listen to this at the gym.
As a veteran audio producer, Prest has a gift for creating and performing intense intimacy. This talent was plenty evident through the run of The Heart (formerly known as Audio Smut), the narrative documentary podcast she published under the Radiotopia banner. That show, now retired, traded in stories about deeply private things: sex, feelings, bodies, inner lives. The manner in which the sometimes pretentious The Heart told its stories didn’t so much flow as drip. They often felt preternaturally quiet, an atmosphere that made the narratives feel more like secrets than stories. It was dreadfully effective. The Shadows carries over that DNA, in aesthetic and in substance. While a stand-alone fiction project, you can detect carryovers of certain ideas and techniques from Prest’s “No” mini-series, one of her last sets from The Heart, a moving autobiographical look at her journey with sex and consent.
There’s a similar spirit of exploration with big, hard questions about the nature of intimate relationships, and there’s a similar dynamism with technique. Together with a production team that includes senior producer Phoebe Wang and editor Sharon Mashihi, The Shadows doesn’t settle for straight-forward compositions across its six episodes. The narrative is keen on switching perspectives, and playing around with time. Scenes are revisited, from different angles and at different starting places, often producing some satisfying Rashomon-style payoffs. However, its playfulness can get a little too cute at points. There’s an entire episode narrated by a sweater that comes into Prest’s possession (a move that evokes the recently launched Radiotopia podcast Everything Is Alive), which for many will come off as a bit too twee, even if it does offer some genuinely moving insight into the world immediately outside of it.
The performances are naturalistic in a mumblecore-ish sort of way, and generally very good, particularly the two leads. Fictional Kaitlin Prest is vibrant and free-spirited in the way that those tortured by existential dread are vibrant and free-spirited — which is to say, she chases dragons and runs from ghosts. It’s pretty interesting to consider how little difference there seems to be between Prest’s delivery in the nonfiction segments of The Heart and her delivery within The Shadow’s fictional context. (Then again, The Shadows is also described to be partially autobiographical.) Mitchell Akiyama, who plays Prest’s counterpart Charlie, serves up a performance that sounds eerily close to Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: excessively inward, endlessly self-editing, always bubbling just beneath the surface. Also, very male.
It’s hard not to admire The Shadows. The podcast offers such a strong and specific point of view — Prest’s, of course — that’s hungry to work through a number of weighty ideas. Among the things Prest appears to be thinking about: the difficulties of monogamy, the ideals of romanticism, the weight of commitment, and the tension between getting what you want out of life and what life would give you. Tying everything together seems to be a fascination with the economy of intimacy: how it’s spent, negotiated, and split between two young people trying to determine the substance and longevity of the relationship their building together. It’s also worth noting that there is a strong youthfulness governing the podcast’s machinations; behind all these questions is a centralizing belief that the future remains open and that life remains long. The Shadows is a work of intense romantic idealism — not just of relationships, but of the world.