Listen, despite all the headlines since the New Year, it’s not all Spotify, Joe Rogan, and COVID misinformation here in podcast land. Sometimes we even get Jamie Lynn Spears going on Call Her Daddy and then thinking she might want to start a podcast of her own.
But while all that’s been happening, there continues to be a steady stream of new show launches, and as always, we have been keeping an eye out for the best and most interesting ones. In this opening list for 2022, I’m starting out with five new shows, but as we drift deeper into the year, I hope to mix things up a bit and throw in standout episodes from existing shows as well. The podcast universe is vast and strange, endless with its nooks and crannies, and I’m trying my best to suss out as much as I can: the big, the small, the expected, the unexpected. Here are the best of the year so far, in order of release.
Normal Gossip (Defector)
There’s something elemental about the pleasures of Normal Gossip. The show possesses an almost minimalist structure: Each episode sees host Kelsey McKinney bringing on a different guest, typically drafted from her pool of media friends and acquaintances, with whom she briefly starts off by discussing gossip in the abstract before shifting into a mode where she delivers to that person a juicy piece of gossip. But here’s the thing: The gossip is from — and about — perfectly ordinary strangers. The stories are intentionally banal, about dating or in-group conflicts or small-town bullshit, but as connoisseurs of the form know, the banality of a piece of gossip doesn’t preclude oddity or wildness. The end result is deceptively addictive, furiously frivolous, and relentlessly fun.
Sorry About the Kid (CBC)
Sorry About The Kid is only four episodes long, but it doesn’t need very much to make a lacerating impression. We follow the Canadian producer Alex McKinnon as he works to unearth and remember as much as he can about a defining childhood trauma. In 1990, when McKinnon was 10, his older brother was killed by a speeding police cruiser. It was a random, utterly senseless tragedy, one that ripped through Montreal’s relatively small Anglophone community at the time and rippled out through the years. In addition to playing out as an extended essay on grief, what’s particularly interesting about this project is its nature as something of an investigative memoir; I say this because the approach reminds me, however faintly, of David Carr’s Night of the Gun (though very different in substance, obviously). McKinnon made this series with Mira Burt-Wintonick, whose past credits include Pen Pals, Love Me, and WireTap and who is definitely a producer to watch.
This Is Dating (Magnificent Noise)
This Is Dating is tricky to describe. On the one hand, you have the obvious hook: It’s a podcast that sets up four chosen individuals on blind dates and offers listeners the voyeuristic thrill of listening in as those individuals navigate their encounters, with all the wincing and wonderment that entails. On the other hand, it’s a podcast that takes its popular reality-dating-show inspirations and runs the whole thing through an inquisitive, feelings-first filter, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that this production comes from some of the people who originated Esther Perel’s showcase therapy podcast, Where Should We Begin? In this case, the dating coach and behavioral scientist Logan Ury steps into the Perel role, providing the four singles with counseling between dates. Episodes are guided along by producers Jesse Baker and Hiwote Getaneh, who also make the show with Eleanor Kagan.
Chameleon: Wild Boys (Campside Media)
The vibes may be shifting, but tales of people scamming, shamming, and swindling seem to be lasting well beyond summer, to the point where it’s basically the new monomyth. Because of this, you’ll continue to find the podcast world, along with almost every streaming service in active operation, pumping out as many fraud stories as it possibly can, capitalizing on a moment that’s become a defining interpretive framework of our modern reality.
The most interesting podcast in the category of the New Year so far comes from Chameleon, Campside Media’s podcast shingle dedicated to grifter narratives. The latest season revisits a story that took place in the rural British Columbia town of Vernon, sometime in the early 2000s, when two boys suddenly appeared in the community claiming to be born of the wilderness. The town took them in, and the whole affair eventually became a media sensation. Of course, nothing is what it seems. Hosted by Vernon native Sam Mullins and produced by Abukar Adan, Wild Boys ends up being a fascinating story about the spirit of small-town life and the aftermath when that spirit is taken advantage of.
The Trojan Horse Affair (Serial Productions)
The Trojan Horse Affair is Serial Productions’ best release since S-Town, and that should not be taken lightly. This series follows Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, a former doctor turned budding journalist, as they dig into the prevailing mysteries of the titular British political scandal, which roiled the city of Birmingham in the early 2010s and inflamed Islamophobic tensions throughout the nation. What ensues is a thoroughly thrilling ride, filled with twists and turns and enough honest-to-God secret documents to put a pulpy Cold War spy novel to shame. The whole experience is elevated even further by the chemistry of the two leads and by how the show integrates the dynamics of their emerging partnership both as a framing device and a way to explore deeper themes about the stakes of chasing down the truth.
Dead Eyes: “Tom” (Headgum)
Rare is the podcast mystery that gets a true resolution, and after thirty episodes, Dead Eyes gives you exactly that. Originally launched back in early 2020 as a fun “small stakes, big adventure” romp, the podcast follows the actor and comedian Connor Ratliff as he endeavors to figure out why he was fired from a tiny role in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers two decades ago — and what it meant that Tom Hanks, an executive producer on the series, felt Ratliff had “dead eyes,” which was the reason he was given for the dismissal. What starts out as a jokey premise quickly reveals itself to be a soulful reflection on the vagaries of life in the entertainment business. But then came the big news: Hanks finally joined Ratliff on the show earlier this year, and the ensuing conversation is one of the most interesting things you’ll hear.
Authentic: The Story of Tablo (Vice Audio and iHeartMedia)
In the late 2000s, the hip-hop artist Tablo, real name Daniel Lee, was already a superstar in South Korea and was poised to meaningfully break through into the Western music world when the online rumors started circulating. Before long, those rumors, which centered on his background as a Korean-Canadian, would metastasize into a huge cyberbullying campaign that ultimately derailed his career. There’s a lot going in the tale of Tablo, which weaves between multiple threads: It’s a story about one of the earliest instances of a toxic online mass movement that intersects with the identity struggle of a cross-cultural artist with feet firmly planted in two worlds, all grounded in the question of how to reclaim one’s narrative in the years following digital fallout. This co-production between Vice Audio and iHeartMedia does a solid job juggling the whole thing while creating a sense of space to linger a little longer in its meaning.
The Superhero Complex (iHeartMedia and Novel)
The notion of actual people being inspired by comics enough to don a costume and fight crime themselves is easy to ridicule. But there are indeed people who do this, and when it comes down to it, their motivations can be understandable as a kind of mutual-aid-adjacent response to failures in policing. Nevertheless, doing something like that still requires a drastic leap in imagination … and, perhaps, an unchecked ego. In this fascinating series, David Weinberg (Welcome to LA) builds out a character study of one of the more prominent and complicated figures in the so-called real-life superhero phenomenon: Ben Fodor, a Seattleite who once led a group called the Rain City Superhero Movement and rose to notoriety. Weinberg and his team’s work is effective in their commitment to treating Fodor seriously as a person and in the way they treat the true-crime-y frame of the show with an ironic remove.
Sounds Like a Cult (All Things Comedy)
You can squeeze a whole lotta juice out of a good concept, as evidenced by Amanda Montell and Isabela Medina-Maté in this enjoyable chatcast. The premise is deceptively simple: In each episode, the duo takes a different phenomenon floating about in the culture — theater kids, minimalism, Trader Joe’s, and so on — and compares it to the framework of a cult. The podcast broadly serves as an extension of Montell’s work in her recently published book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which examines how language is central to the cultivation of cultlike dynamics and how that manipulation of language has been replicated in the other, seemingly banal aspects of our culture, such as the corporate life. Sounds Like a Cult is a playful take on that perspective, but in that playfulness, it gets at something fundamental about the world: No matter where you are, you’re never too far from the brink of cultishness.
Let’s Make a Sci-Fi (CBC)
Three comedians — Ryan Beil, Maddy Kelly, and Mark Chaves — try to write an earnest sci-fi script together while making a podcast documenting their efforts at doing so. Sure, it sounds self-indulgent, and I’ll admit to bouncing off the show when I first read its description. My mistake. Let’s Make a Sci-Fi is a fun and lovely series that walks listeners through the rough stages of developing a science-fiction story for film and television. In its semi-educational pursuit, the show broadly intersects with the vast universe of screenwriting and Hollywood-industry podcasts that’s available out there. But what’s special about this one is how it captures the strong sense of play that comes through in the best moments of any creative collaboration. It makes me miss writing with other people.