It is apparently a point of historical consensus that when the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919, his wife, Edith Wilson, took over an unprecedented amount of responsibilities of his office. The First Lady, along with others in the president’s inner circle, was also said to have kept the full severity of his illness from the public, and through the end of his term, she played such an outsize role in daily presidential affairs — acting as gatekeeper, managing priorities, directing flows of communication — that some biographers consider her the country’s unofficial first female president.
This subject really does make for a good narrative premise. The scenario is fertile for high jinks and high stakes, a combination befitting a farce — or, in this case, a new fiction podcast series, Edith!, which comes from a collaboration between Crooked Media and QCODE.
Edith! features the ever-interesting Rosamund Pike as the titular First Lady, and she’s rounded out by a fairly extensive roster of solid supporting players, including Clark Gregg as Woodrow Wilson (being very Clark Gregg), Stephen Root as Vice-President Thomas Marshall (being very Stephen Root), and Esther Povitsky as Trudie Grayson, who functions in the podcast as Edith’s sidekick and foil. The resulting product is a zany period piece that sits somewhere between a comedic stage play and an adult animated tragicomic sitcom — which makes sense as far as the latter is concerned, I suppose, given that Edith! is written by Gonzalo Cordova and Travis Helwig, the former of whom worked on Tuca & Bertie.
Pike, of course, is the point here; the entire narrative is run through the First Lady’s point of view. It’s her voice and perspective that set up the scenes, layer the context, guide the action, and tie everything together with a steady peppering of puckish asides (well delivered). Wry, tactical, and cutting, Pike shows more than a bit of her performance in Gone Girl here, or maybe her turn in that film is so firmly etched on my brain that it readily comes to mind whenever I hear her narration. Edith! positions the First Lady as continuously balancing between being the most strategic — perhaps the smartest — person in the room and being a sharply ambitious individual who veers ever so close to getting out over her skis at any given point. There are truly few things more pleasurable than the sound of Pike working through an increasingly thorny problem out loud.
The script is swift and punchy, though it does rely a little too much on a winking knowingness to indicate the writers’ awareness of some of the more unsavory historical truths embedded in the situation. (Like, for example, the fact that President Wilson was, you know, an egregious racist even for the time.) Being knowing isn’t the same as knowing what to do with something, and in this regard, Edith! can come off as being too eagerly and cavalierly clever for its own good. It’s no deal-breaker, though, not by a long shot. Edith! is a fiction podcast that stands as a really good time, minute to minute, and that’s no small feat.
Gene and Roger
Do the names Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert mean anything to filmgoers under the age of 25? Or will millennials be the last generation for whom these two powerful midwestern film critics meant anything, as we drift further from their deaths — Siskel in 1999, Ebert in 2013 — and as the film business is still being radically reshaped by IP-ification, the increasing centrality of streaming services, the parallel decline of cinemas, and what feels like the continued flattening of celebrity?
Those aren’t necessarily questions posed in Gene and Roger, The Ringer’s new eight-part miniseries about their legacy (being published through the company’s feed The Big Picture) — at least not at the outset. But those questions were definitely on my mind as I listened to host Brian Raftery walk through the early beats of Siskel and Ebert’s rise, both as individual critics and as a defining partnership. Raftery, the culture writer who authored 2019’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, is undoubtedly one such person who sits squarely within a generation influenced by Siskel and Ebert’s heavenward thumbs. In his case, the influence was deep. Opening the first episode, Raftery discusses how he was shaped by watching the two men debate films on their television show, before he proceeds to argue that everybody has a Siskel or Ebert in their life and that you can detect traces of their show’s DNA these days in conversational podcasts everywhere. Maybe that’s true.
I’m enjoying Gene and Roger enough, though I’m somewhat predisposed, being a huge film nerd and a fan of film criticism in general. That said, I don’t yet feel as if I’m getting much that’s new, having already consumed, among other things, Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, and Steve James’s documentary of the same name about the critic. What has been nice, though, is getting a better sense of balance between the two figures: Siskel, despite being Ebert’s defining collaborator, always struck me from a distance as having something of a more muted legacy.
There’s another question that strikes me while I listen to the miniseries: Whom is this for? Is it meant to be an introduction to Siskel and Ebert for the next generation of film consumers? Or is it intended as another vessel of pop-culture nostalgia, something The Ringer has consistently been very good at delivering in the past? The current shape of the concept suggests the former, but it’s probably the latter.
• We ran a story in this week’s “Hot Pod” about something called Neutrinowatch. The experimental project comes from Here Be Monsters’ Jeff Emtman and Song by Song’s Martin Austwick, and the concept is based on what they’re calling “generative podcasting.” The idea, in short: The feed seems to contain six episodes (plus a short explainer), but the substance of every episode changes every day. If you were to stream or re-download each one every morning, you would hear something slightly different from the day before. Again, it’s an experimental project so don’t go in expecting a full meal, but it’s definitely worth poking around.
• Pop-Up Magazine, the “live magazine” organization, has released its first podcast-style project, though it’s more appropriately termed a “multimedia experience.” It’s called Field Guide, and the initiative pulls together a wide assortment of interesting people — Roxane Gay, Bonnie Tsui, and Anna Sale, among many others — to appreciate the world around us. You know, as you do.
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 email@example.com.
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