1.5x speed

The Ballad of a Hollywood Madam (and 5 More Podcasts Worth Trying)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Happy Wednesday, everyone. So yeah, Everything Everywhere All at Once was excellent. I suspect it’s going to be a very long time before I have another experience watching an older arthouse moviegoing crowd here in Idaho react to an extended butt-plug gag — the gasps! — and I’ll always have Daniels to thank for that.

As always, tell me what you’re listening to. You can reach me at nicholas.quah@nymag.com or find me on Twitter. And hey, if you like 1.5x Speed, wrap this email in a corn husk and pass it on. Nick Quah

HeidiWorld: The Heidi Fleiss Story

L.A., confidential.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

There was once a woman who rose to fame in the early ’90s for operating a high-end escort business that drew the patronage of the Los Angeles elite. Her name was Heidi Fleiss, and at the height of her power, she lived in a multimillion-dollar mansion (purchased from Michael Douglas, apparently), co-owned a nightclub with the daughter of Peter Sellers, and threw lavish, star-studded parties. But her reign didn’t last all that long. Fleiss’s ascendance was built on a double cross, and within a few years of her rise, an old foe would orchestrate a series of events that turned her into the target of a sting operation and the subject of a national media circus. Fleiss went to jail, and after her release, she stayed in Hollywood for a time, living a life that was every bit as dramatic as what came before. It wasn’t pretty.

Fleiss’s rise, fall, and afterlife is the subject of a new Hollywood history series by the writer Molly Lambert (previously of the Night Call podcast), who reads her as a kind of symbol for the collateral damage of America’s puritanical relationship with sex, a double standard in which women are usually made to disproportionately bear the consequences of their actions in a way that men rarely are.

Based on the first episode, the only one I’ve heard so far, HeidiWorld conducts itself as a largely straightforward historical accounting, with Lambert serving as an active, opinionated narrator. The production also involves a fairly sizable cast giving voice to various characters across the Heidi Fleiss story, led by the actress Annie Hamilton, playing the titular madam. Those vocal performances serve as recreations of certain scenes and texts, standing in for the archival audio you’d typically expect of other audio documentaries of this sort. It’s a move pulled from You Must Remember This, which is just as well given that Karina Longworth appears in HeidiWorld as a guest alongside a who’s who of indie-flavored podcast and comedy types, including Jamie LoftusChapo Trap House’s Felix Biederman, the How Long Gone guysWho? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber, and SNL’s Sarah Squirm.

The execution has been a little rough in practice so far — Lambert’s narration could be tighter, the script could be neater — but her treatment of Fleiss’s story is intriguing. It fits neatly into the blended vibes of the ’90s revival and a reconsideration of women from the era that we seem to be bouncing around in these days.

Unclear and Present Danger

Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher are two different people, apparently.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

Keep your scrunchies on, we’re staying in the ’90s.

There’s a subset of the political-thriller film genre, borne from the ’90s, that’s perhaps best described as the ultimate dad movie. Assuming you’re over 30 — and here I’m making a huge guess about the 1.5x Speed readership — you’re probably familiar with these flicks: They tend to star Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, maybe Alec Baldwin; they sometimes feature brass-heavy orchestration that recalls W. G. Snuffy Walden’s score from The West Wing; they usually feature men dealing with high-stakes political situations that spill into violence and/or threaten the fate of the free world; they can be surprisingly thinky for a popcorn engagement; they are exemplary weekend-afternoon cable watches. You know the kind: Patriot Games, The Hunt for Red OctoberEnemy of the StateClear and Present Danger, and so on. As the saying goes, they don’t make movies like that anymore, for reasons that are partly structural (i.e., the collapse of the mid-budget movie) and part cultural (i.e., 9/11 changed the kinds of stories America would like to tell itself about itself).

Anyway, films like these are the subject of Unclear and Present Danger, a relatively new independent chatcast by Jamelle Bouie and John Ganz. Both men in their 30s, they’re on the younger side in terms of the generation who came up with these films. But they nevertheless recall these films with a nostalgic fondness, and now that they both write about politics as a profession — Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times, Ganz is writing a book about the early ’90s — they’ve decided to start a podcast (as you do) exploring their shared interest in these films, how those movies reflected the times within which they were made, and looking past the nostalgia to assess the ideology of those films within context. It’s prime nerd-king shit.

I feel like I’ve been hearing Bouie on podcasts for a very long time, through his appearances on the Slate Political Gabfest over the years or through his occasional guest spots talking movies on Blank Check or talking about various historical ephemera on You’re Wrong About. (He also sporadically writes reviews of cereal for Serious Eats, and they are good.) I’m less familiar with Ganz’s work, but like many freewheeling political writers of this era, he maintains a Substack, which I’m finding interesting. Unclear and Present Danger is still really early in its life cycle, so it can be pretty rough around the edges, but as with many niche podcasts, if the subject matter is up your alley, the upstart awkwardness doesn’t really matter.


You get a podcast! And you get a podcast!
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

Oprah Winfrey has been so powerful, so famous, and so rich for so long that her presence as an American cultural force strikes me as akin to the New York City skyline. Of course, I would think this, speaking as an individual who came of age during a time when The Oprah Winfrey Show was already a staple on daytime television. Frankly, I’m understudied in all the ways in which her rise to stardom was a revolution and how her influence continues to shape American culture to this very day.

Enter Oprahdemics. Hosted by Kellie Carter Jackson and Leah Wright Rigueur, two historians who also happen to be great friends, this new Radiotopia podcast pitches itself as a longform study of the Oprah phenomenon — to understand “who she is, what she represents, and why she matters.” The show’s structure speaks to its intent on depth: Each installment hooks onto a specific episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show and unpacks it across several layers of context. Worth noting: The show is a spiritual sibling to This Day in Esoteric Political History, another Radiotopia podcast that also features Jackson as a co-host. (Jody Avirgan, the creator and a co-host on that show, is the executive producer on Oprahdemics.)

At this writing, there’s only one full Oprahdemic episode available, which dives into a 2011 episode in which Oprah and her Harpo Studios staff attempted to go vegan for a full week. It’s a strong start. Here are just a fraction of the things you’ll glean by the end of the episode: the public conception of “healthy eating” in the early 2010s and its relationship with privilege, capitalism, and race; Oprah’s own relationship with health and body image over the course of her daytime career; the notion that the comedian Dick Gregory was the first major public figure known for his veganism; the importance of syndication to the development of Oprah’s empire; and the crowd aesthetics of an Oprah Winfrey Show taping. And that doesn’t even cover half of it. All of which is to say, Jackson and Rigueur are able to pack a stunning amount of information and insight into a 45-minute conversation that feels a lot brisker than that. It says a lot not only about their pedagogical strengths but also about the fun, lively chemistry of their friendship. (The show is produced by Nina Earnest.)

One thing I’ll be curious to track with this show is how it balances celebration and critique. Oprahdemics is broadly reverent to its subject, which is absolutely justified. At the same time, there are aspects of the Oprah phenomenon that demand scrutiny: Consider, for example, the role that Oprah played in the development of Mehmet Oz, who’s been heavily criticized for his questionable promotion of pseudoscience and who is now attempting to court Trump as part of his campaign to be the next Republican senator of Pennsylvania. (And let’s not even talk about Dr. Phil for the moment.) I’m sure this team will do just fine on that front, though. After all, true appreciation involves the consideration of a person in their full complexity, warts and all.

The Superhero Complex 

Tights and fights.
Available on all platforms. Listen here

For some years in the early 2010s, there was a group of costumed civilians that patrolled the streets of Seattle. They considered themselves real-life superheroes and called themselves the Rain City Superhero Movement. At times, their contributions took the form of simple acts, like helping drunk people find their way home. Other times, their work sounds broadly similar to mutual aid, like providing water for the unhoused and administering first aid to the injured. Sometimes, they directly fought crime. Between their actions and presentation, the group drew media attention, which was typically bemused or mocking in tone but nevertheless expanded their profile and credibility. And as one would expect, they also had a very complicated relationship with formal law enforcement.

Yep, it’s exactly like Kick-Ass, but as the first episode of this new limited-series podcast outlines, the phenomenon of ordinary people inspired by comic books to don a cape and independently fight crime has a fairly long lineage, one stretching back decades. This is a phenomenon that’s rich with weirdness and complication: On the one hand, there’s a way in which one can think about the existence of such individuals as perfectly understandable expressions of community response to outrageous systemic failures in state apparatus. On the other hand, it takes a very specific kind of personality and psychology to express that response by literally modeling themselves after superheroes.

This bundle of questions and curiosities is alive in The Superhero Complex, which runs them through the specific tale of one of these Seattle superheroes: Phoenix Jones. A semiprofessional MMA fighter named Ben Fodor in real life, Phoenix Jones was perhaps the most prominent figure in the Rain City Superhero Movement. He’s also the one with the natural hook for a documentary: Once a media highlight for the movement, his stature was ultimately cut to pieces when he was arrested for selling MDMA to undercover police officers. The Superhero Complex, then, presents itself as a story of a rise and a fall.

“What exactly is real in the world of real-life superheroes?” asks David Weinberg, who hosts and writes the series. He’s backed by Amalie Sortland and Caroline Thornham, who hold reporting and production duties. Weinberg is the Los Angeles–based producer responsible for Welcome to LA, perhaps one of my favorite nonfiction podcasts ever. Flashes of his signature style still come through the piece: a light melancholia in the cadence of his narration, razor-sharp attention to the details of things like belt buckles and beer bellies. Compared to the gentle sensitivity of Welcome to LA, Weinberg’s writing in The Superhero Complex feels a lot wrier, a good deal more sarcastic.

There are, however, turns in the script that strike me as more clichéd than I would expect from Weinberg: “Is he a shining example of a brave citizen fighting for justice?” he asks at one point in the pilot, referring to Phoenix Jones. “Or is he a misguided vigilante who used a superhero persona to disguise his own criminal activity?” Then again, every Marvel movie has its formulaic beats, even if you plug Chloé Zhao in as director.

Meanwhile …

➽ This Twitter thread, in which a journalist accuses a podcast called Soldier of Misfortune of blatantly ripping off his reporting without attribution, made the rounds earlier this week. Stories like this have popped up time and time again within the true-crime podcast scene in particular; this is just the latest. For the writers and journalists in the crowd, has something like this happened to you before? Hit me up.

➽ The Experiment, the audio magazine series co-produced by The Atlantic and WNYC Studios, is coming to an end on May 26. According to an internal WNYC memo, this development comes as a result of The Atlantic deciding to move its podcast strategy in “a new direction.” (Of note: The magazine hired a new executive producer of audio, Claudine Ebeid, in December.) Staffers on The Experiment will be distributed across the rest of WNYC Studios, which also attached another announcement to the memo: The publisher is bringing back More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff focused on the Supreme Court, and it will be rebooting the series around Julia Longoria, who hosted The Experiment.

➽ The New York Times’ Still Processing returns with a new season tomorrow. Jenna Wortham is off this season, leaving Wesley Morris to lead the stretch with a series of guest co-hosts.

➽ Speaking of Morris and Wortham, they’re set to be guests on Partners, Hrishikesh Hirway’s side project with Mailchimp about creative duos, which is back with another season today.

➽ Gimlet Media’s head of content, Lydia Polgreen, is leaving the Spotify division to return to the New York Times, where she’ll be an “Opinion” columnist. The search is on for a new head honcho. Speculate away about what this means for the once-buzzy Gimlet Media. In related Spotify news, the Parcast Union has reached a tentative deal with the Swedish audio streaming platform, averting a potential strike. Also, the company continues its effort to make live audio a meaningful component of its experience. Say, what happened to Clubhouse?

➽ Missed this last week, but apparently iHeartMedia wants to build a “new NFT network for podcasts,” whatever that means. “This is really pushing the envelope to pressure test the assumptions we have around what is IP, what is a host, and what is talent,” Conal Byrne, president of iHeart’s podcast division, told Axios. Like, what is time, man? What are nation-states, actually? [Hits blunt.]

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 nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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The Ballad of a Hollywood Madam (and 5 More Podcasts to Try)