This week: two scandals from 2018, Marc Maron and Hunter Biden, and a multilingual fiction podcast.
The Improvement Association
Beneath every big scandal, there tends to be a foundation of earlier, smaller ones.
The scandal in question here took place in rural Bladen County, North Carolina, back in 2018, when a congressional election in the state’s Ninth District ended with the Republican candidate’s victory over his Democratic opponent getting tossed out because of proven absentee-ballot tampering on the Republican’s side. That story went national and is now identified as one of the very few cases in modern American history when a congressional race was nullified because of election fraud.
Republicans were the perpetrators in Bladen County, but as the prologue to The Improvement Association notes, this turns out to be the one voting-fraud case that both political parties agree actually happened. “Democrats like to talk about it because it was Republicans that did the cheating,” says Zoe Chace, the veteran This American Life staffer who leads the series. “Republicans like to talk about it without mentioning who did the cheating because it proves election fraud does happen” — which, she points out, it does. It’s just exceedingly rare.
The Improvement Association is the latest project from Serial Productions, the famed audio publisher behind S-Town and all three seasons of Serial. It’s the shop’s second release (after Nice White Parents) since being bought by the New York Times, and this series sees Chace going down to North Carolina to dig through the accusations, how those accusations get formed, the facts of the matter, and the implications for the community. This marks a return of sorts for Chace, who previously reported for This American Life back in 2016 about a much smaller race in the county that was beset by (you guessed it) election-fraud accusations. As the first episode, “The Big Shadoo,” sets up, this place has a history of election-fraud allegations recurring and compounding and directly leading up to the events of 2018.
I’ve heard only the first of the show’s five episodes as of this writing, and it hits a bunch of my personal boxes: it’s deliciously wonky, it’s (unsurprisingly) well-written, it’s rich with a sense of place, it’s Zoe Chace doing a political story. But the thing that really jumps out is Chace’s rendering of this election-fraud story as a local story with tangible effects on how members of a small community — the kind of place, Chace tells us, where interactions are still largely done face-to-face — relate to one another.
There’s a lot that’s interesting about The Line on a meta level. To begin with, the podcast is an “Apple Original,” which is to say, it’s an audio production directly commissioned and developed by Apple; the tech giant’s budding media exploits have largely involved pushing hard into the television business while leaving some vagueness around its future with podcasting, a medium it directly helped create. Furthermore, The Line is actually two projects in two formats meant to provide two independently reported perspectives on the same story. There is the podcast version, led and hosted by Dan Taberski (Missing Richard Simmons, Running From Cops), which I’m talking about right now, and then there’s a visual docuseries version from the documentarian Jeffrey Zimbalist (The Two Escobars), which will be distributed exclusively on Apple TV+ later in the fall.
Yeah, it all feels like a strange and extravagant bit of corporate-media jujitsu, but I’d be lying if I said my annoying nerd brain didn’t find the contorted complexity of the whole thing really compelling.
Anyway, all this would be for naught if the shows themselves weren’t actually good, and thankfully, The Line, or at least the podcast version, is genuinely excellent and I don’t think you should miss it. The series sees Taberski looking into the story of Eddie Gallagher, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who was charged in 2018 with committing war crimes at the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, which involved his possibly having killed a prisoner of war. He was ultimately acquitted on all charges except one: posing for a photo with the corpse.
A recording lies at the center of the allegations — one that includes some missing footage — and the question of Gallagher’s guilt or innocence makes up the bulk of the catalyst for the series. But that’s not entirely what Taberski seems interested in. Based on the first two episodes I’ve consumed so far, he leans a little harder into using Gallagher as a starting point to figure out just what kind of person tends to get drafted into the highly specific and difficult life of a Navy SEAL and what that means when you deploy a team of that culture into the field … and then back into civilian life.
The Line delivers what is perhaps my favorite Taberski iteration so far. Running From Cops already marked something of a departure for him, positioning him more in the classic outsider documentary-producer role compared with Missing Richard Simmons and Surviving Y2K, in which his own inner life played a more prominent role in the proceedings. In The Line, Taberski comes across as a full outsider — half fish out of water and half battle-tested investigator — navigating a deeply insular world and poking and prodding with an engaged curiosity.
➽ This may be old news by now, but Marc Maron’s interview with Hunter Biden is a great reminder of why WTF has become the phenomenon that it is. First of all, what an unexpected choice for Biden, and second of all: “Did you marry her because she was pregnant?” “Yeah, but we were in love!” Geez.
➽ The latest season of Studio Ochenta’s Mija, a fiction podcast that dedicates each season to the story of a different immigrant family, drops today. Keep in mind that the show simultaneously rolls out in three languages: English, Spanish, and Arabic.
➽ Also debuting this week: the second season of Tell Them, I Am, Misha Euceph’s interview show with the tagline “The stories are universal. The voices are all Muslim.”
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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