Top Ten: Podcasts

At some point in the last five years I started listening to podcasts more than I listen to music. It began with Serial (more on that below), and then I tried a variety of genres before solidifying my subscriptions. There are some I used to listen to that are now defunct (Why Oh Why and A Cast of Kings), and there are some mini-series I’d recommend (S-Town and The Dropout). The list below is narrowed down to ten, but I also subscribe to WTF with Marc Maron, ChallengeMania, and On the Line (they’re good, just not my favorites).

With that out of the way, here are my favorite podcasts, ranked from good to better.

10. Lore

Monsters, ghouls, aliens, they all fascinate me. Start telling a scary story and I’m all ears. Host Aaron Mahnke gleams history to find the most interesting stories to capture and disturb his listeners, and he’s an excellent storyteller. He’s the trusted voice speaking over the campfire assuring you this really happened. And if it didn’t happen, wouldn’t it be crazy cool if it did?

Listen to: “Episode 137: Elusive,” a retelling of the Kelly–Hopkinsville encounter when aliens invaded a farm in 1955 rural America.

09. Serial

With its first season Serial introduced thousands of people to the world of podcasts. The murder of Hae Min Lee revealed cracks in the criminal justice system and launched dozens of true crime podcasts. Seasons two and three didn’t recapture that same magic, but not every hit can be a grand slam. I would like to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s long-form reporting, so hopefully 2021 brings about a new season. At least for now we have Nice White Parents.

Listen to: “Episode 01: The Alibi,” the one that started it all.

08. Embedded

Embedded is the wild card of my podcast feed. I never know when a new episode will pop up, and I’m unsure what the topic will be. Kelly McEvers’ NPR podcast drills down on a recent news item and clarifies the “why” and “how” of it all. It’s the opposite of a news headline. Episodes are about a half hour, which makes them long enough to be educational and short enough to not overstay their welcome. Donald Trump, police action, Mitch McConnell, and coal mining have all been covered.

Listen to: “There Is No Playbook,” when a flashflood in Maryland portends the future of calamitous weather.

07. Love + Radio

Years back I googled “best podcasts” and the Love + Radio episode “The Silver Dollar” popped up on a few lists. It’s an amazing episode, and Love + Radio is one of the most interesting listening experiences out there. There are stories of gender bending, Howard Hughes, a guy who loves dolls, dark secrets, and a successful humiliatrix. Now that I write out some of the episode topics, I’m thinking I should have called Love + Radio the wild card of my podcast feed. Unfortunately, I don’t listen to this podcast regularly because it’s behind the Luminary paywall, but I’m glad host Nick van der Kolk is getting paid.

Listen to: “The Living Room,” the story of a voyeur’s affectionate relationship with her young neighbors.

06. The Bill Simmons Podcast

Bill Simmons is one of the pioneers of podcasting, and it shows. His Ringer podcast network is a powerful content machine and Spotify paid big for it. The Bill Simmons Podcast isn’t the best the network has to offer (spoiler alert), but it’s an enjoyable listen. Though high-profile guests include A-list actors and legendary athletes, cousin Sal is my favorite, and it’s fun to hear him and Simmons rant about their kids on “Parent Corner.” With The Bill Simmons Podcast you get sports talk, technology, politics, TV, just a smorgasbord of good listening material.

Listen to: “Matt Damon on Rounders, Good Will Hunting, and ’90s Hollywood,” and hear one of today’s most popular actors talk about the struggle of breaking into the business.

05. Stuff You Missed in History Class

Hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson are doing such good work with Stuff You Missed in History Class. Every week they research and present stories and biographies about everything from medieval battles to feminist icons. Not every episode is a must listen for me, but the podcast delivers some excellent content. The hosts make a deliberate effort to shine light on history that is too often ignored (women and oppressed people included), and Holly and Tracy are empathetic and enthusiastic – two qualities of good teachers. Do you remember the Tulsa race massacre? History books may gloss over it, but Stuff You Missed in History Class doesn’t.

Listen to: “Wendell Scott: Black NASCAR Driver in the Jim Crow Era, Part 1 and Part 2,” and yes I am cheating by recommending two episodes, because Wendell Scott’s story is amazing.

04. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend

This is the only podcast I can say I’ve been listening to since the beginning. Conan is one of my favorite people in Hollywood, so of course I had to give his podcast a try. Similar to Bill Simmons, Conan brings in some A-list guests to interview (like Michelle Obama and Bob Newhart), but the best parts of the episodes are his banter with assistant Sona Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley. They argue like family and it’s funny as hell. Coco is here to conquer the podcast industry like an oil magnate would, and I’m here for it.

Listen to: “A Very Special Self-Quarantine Episode featuring Andy Daly,” ‘cause the coronavirus is a wily trickster only Andy Daly can kill.

03. Planet Money

I performed poorly during my macroeconomics class (or was it micro?), so I’m surprised at how much I like Planet Money. NPR’s economics podcast is smart, funny, short, and easily digestible. Similar to Last Week Tonight, Planet Money regularly reveals issues I’m ignorant of, and once I’m educated I have to wonder how things could go so wrong or so weird. From the economy of rap beats to chicken taxes, there’s no shortage of topics this podcast covers. Money rules the world, and Planet Money sorts out the details.

Listen to: “Small America vs. Big Internet,” because damn the man.

02. This American Life

This radio show has been in operation since the ‘90s. Every week creator/host Ira Glass and a talented stable of journalists present stories based around a central theme. The themes include break-ups, political campaigning, adoption, car salesmen, quarantine stories, and hundreds more. Sometimes one story occupies the entire hour-long episode, and those episodes are often the most impactful. No other podcast I’ve listened to runs the gamut from humorous to educational to heartbreaking. People are fascinating creatures, and This American Life proves it again and again.

Listen to: “Petty Tyrant,” a story of a maintenance man who becomes too powerful.

01. The Rewatchables

The Rewatchables isn’t changing the world or winning awards like some podcasts on this list, but I look forward to this podcast more than any other. Here’s the hook – The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and friends discuss movies they’ve watched, rewatched, and watched again. They break the movies into categories like “Who won the movie?” and the “’She’s got a great ass!’” award for overacting. The movies discussed are not always the greatest movies ever made (some are complete garbage), but the conversations are always fun to listen to, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to join in with my own comments. The Rewatchables hosts take the bad movies seriously, and they illuminate what makes the best movies unforgettable.

Listen to: “Good Will Hunting,” as if you need a reason to rewatch the best movie ever.

Posted in Top Ten | Tagged , | Leave a comment

TV Review: The Good Place

Saying goodbye to The Good Place feels a bit like saying goodbye to NBC’s must-see TV. I know Seinfeld, Friends, and even The Office have been gone for years, but The Good Place held the flickering torch of NBC prestige comedy. Maybe it’s fitting that Michael Schur’s comedy series is all about death and the afterlife.

I know I just compared The Good Place to classic comedies, but I wouldn’t rank it amongst the funniest shows ever made. That’s not a bad thing, at least not for me. It’s a “comedy” because it’s a half-hour long and contains humor, and it’s not drab enough to be a drama. More than anything, The Good Place examines the biggest questions – what happens after we die, why is being “good” important – in a fun and poignant way.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her mismatched friends are all dead, but they find the afterlife is as complex and unorganized as regular life. The cast is strong, and it includes the gem Ted Danson, who apparently can’t stay away from seminal comedies. One of my only complaints is I would have liked to see more of Adam Scott, who plays a demon that’s basically the worst dude you ever met at a party. The demons really are one of the best parts of the show. Their childlike enthusiasm for penis flattening is almost heartwarming.

The Good Place isn’t overflowing with standout episodes (with one big exception I’ll talk about in a bit). Again, that might sound like a knock against it, but it’s not, because the series is greater than the sum of its parts. With some comedies it’s easy to pop back to favorite episodes, but this show isn’t built that way. This story is best experienced as a whole, more akin to a novel than a TV series with long season breaks. There’s a reason individual episodes are labeled as “chapters.”

I haven’t said much about the plot of The Good Place, and I won’t. It’s a special, winding journey that culminates in one of the best TV finales I can remember. Really, for as good as the show is, I didn’t expect it to end so perfectly. It offers closure while retaining a great mystery, the greatest of all. Future TV writers should take note.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain kind of dread regarding death and eternity. The Good Place acknowledges this when Eleanor says, “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” Flipping a negative into a positive is what this show is all about. It’s lovely that way.

Posted in TV, TV Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Short Story: “Sir Gawain and the Dragon”

In 2008 for my senior seminar final project I wrote a short story called “Sir Gawain and the Dragon.” Our class had been reading King Arthur texts for months, so it was fairly easy to imagine how protagonists Gawain and Lancelot would struggle when confronted by their respective shortcomings. In the original story I cited historical texts, giving reasons for certain story beats (like the proper way to arm a knight or the beheading of Gawain’s brother). Credit to professor Mark E. Allen for allowing me to create something imaginative rather than something purely academic. He’s a great teacher, and I always enjoyed our class discussions.

I’ve edited the story, removing instances of passive-voice and overall improving the writing, but the plot’s dark path remains the same. I don’t read much fantasy, but it’s a fun genre to explore nonetheless, and “Sir Gawain and the Dragon” is available on Amazon right now. It’s less than 5,000 words, so give it a try and I hope you enjoy. Make sure you leave a review after reading.

Posted in Short Stories, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Key Character: Hunter

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

The original Resident Evil is amusing by today’s horror standards. The characters are visibly blocky, and the game features some of the best worst voice acting in video game history. But for a kid playing back in 1996 it was a different story. The voice acting remained laughable, but the infested mansion held its share of scares. Chief among the frightful creatures is the hunter.

The zombies are the goombas of Resident Evil, common and easy enough to deal with. But during a certain mission the lead character is taken away from the mansion only to return to a surprise. The control is ripped away from the player and the camera shifts to a first-person view. A creature follows the player’s path, speeding toward the mansion and leaping past a ladder. A scaly hand opens the final door and the creature enters the same hallway as the player.

A hulking, reptilian-humanoid then stalks toward the player with razor-sharp claws clicking on the hardwood floor. Yeah, this was the scary stuff. My friend would hand me the controller when it became time to take down a hunter, because he regularly found himself insta-killed (beheaded, no less) by a slashing hunter. Even in death hunters are unsettling. Their screams before falling over sound like cats being put through a shredder.

One of the more interesting things about the hunters is they aren’t bosses or minibosses. After their great introduction hunters replace zombies in some areas that had been relatively safe. They are an unnatural disaster the player has to deal with until the end of the game. Sometimes when facing them it’s a smarter decision to flee to the next room. Even when the player is loaded down with weapons, hunters help keep the “survival” in the survival horror game.

The lickers replace the hunters in Resident Evil 2, and they are cool monsters, but they’re also a definite downgrade. There’s something about the deliberate walk of the hunter, its sounds, its hearty build and instant quickness. Nowadays there exist multiple variations on the hunter (I like the frogman that swallows the player in one gulp), but the original screeching killer is an undeniable classic.

Posted in Key Characters | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Challenge Hall of Fame: Ashley Mitchell

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Back in 2016 Paula Meronek and Sarah Rice were the only two women to ever win two seasons of The Challenge. Since then, winning The Challenge has become increasingly difficult. So, it’s amazing that undersized, unassuming Ashley Mitchell is the third female two-time champion (and the richest by far).

Ashley is a volatile competitor, either winning big or flaming out in dramatic fashion. Her elimination record of 3-3 reflects that perfectly. She shocked Camila Nakagawa by beating her on Invasion of the Champions. She walked off Dirty 30 after the airline lost her luggage. She won Final Reckoning and stole Hunter Barfield’s money to become the first millionaire winner. Most recently, she lost in a Total Madness elimination after being called out as a snake.

I don’t think of Ashley as a snake. She’s more of a chameleon. When surrounded by her friends on Final Reckoning she immediately assumed the leadership role (despite joining the competition late), staying clear of late game eliminations before playing a cutthroat game in the final. On War of the Worlds 2 she recognized her weak position and aligned herself with the dominant alliance. She played the role of loyal follower and almost pulled off another win using a smart strategy.

Ashley is a political powerhouse. She can be a figurehead or an afterthought, whichever suits her. She’s also smarter than most competitors, solving puzzles with time to spare. And when it’s time to run a final, she has a winner’s mentality. During one final Ashley damn near killed Hunter by helping him fall off a helicopter ladder, and during another final she berated Cara Maria Sorbello for crying while trying to eat a worm. When money is on the line, Ashely has no sympathy.

It would be remiss of me to not also mention that Ashley “Millionaire” Mitchell is downright entertaining. She hooks up, she steals money, she’s loud, she’s funny, and she sums herself up best with a quote from the Total Madness reunion: “Some people like to make a storyline before they walk in the door, and honey, I am a storyline. I don’t need to make one up.”

Posted in The Challenge Hall of Fame, TV | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Brian K. Vaughan – Ex Machina

Brian K. Vaughan is my favorite comic book writer, and that’s saying something when writers like Alan Moore exist. BKV has received lots of positive attention for books like Y: The Last Man and Saga, but Ex Machina doesn’t get talked about much. Let’s change that right now by diving into the story of Mitchell Hundred, aka “The Great Machine.”

Ex Machina has one of the best comic book hooks I’ve ever heard – the world’s only superhero saves the second tower on 9/11 and thereafter becomes the mayor of New York City. Before the story proper begins, a mysterious object explodes in Hundred’s face, and he becomes a bumbling superhero who can speak to machines and control them to a certain extent. Though he’s a pitiful superhero, the publicity of 9/11 is enough to win him the mayor job (unless he rigged the election… it’s one of the lingering and intriguing questions of the story). Ex Machina follows Mitchell’s time in office, and it’s interspliced with flashbacks of his jetpack misadventures.

Tony Harris’s art is fantastic when depicting action scenes, and it makes the political conversations – of which there are many – much more interesting. More so than the art, the origin of Hundred’s powers and the reckoning they foreshadow are my favorite part of the book. Despite how often he uses them, Hundred is completely disinterested in his powers, but the more we learn about them, the more frightening they become. The flashbacks to 9/11 are also quite affecting. The tragedy of 2001 was a personal event for BKV, and the references to Hundred’s PTSD are haunting. Seeing a panicked Hundred trying his best to catch people falling from a crumbling building, knowing he will surely fail in catching everyone, are the kind of comic panels that stick with a reader.

The politics aren’t my favorite part of Ex Machina, but that doesn’t mean they’re not appealing in their own way. Sure, some of the political debates may seem dated now (e.g. gay marriage). But without the politics, we wouldn’t witness the political machine grinding Mayor Hundred into a worse version of himself throughout his time in office. I won’t spoil the ending here; suffice to say Hundred’s best friends are not campaign contributors by the closing issue.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and the way it bleeds its way into Ex Machina is fascinating. I won’t say it’s “realistic” (that’s a bridge too far when a man flies around like the Rocketeer); the build up is gradual though, so the wild revelations make sense within the context of the story. There’s no Twilight Zone quick twist, more like gradual waves of uneasiness and nightmares preceding the demons. Ex Machina isn’t as fun of a romp as Y: The Last Man, and it’s not as addicting as Saga, but its well deserving of a read.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Challenge Hall of Fame: Darrell Taylor

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Darrell Taylor is the OG Challenge champion. He’s the only player in the history of the show to win four seasons in a row, and longtime viewers still show him his due respect. Darrell is also a Golden Gloves champion (more on that in a bit) and is more fit at 40-years-old than many of the individuals chasing a challenge championship today.

The two qualities that propelled Darrell to his four championships are endurance and his ability to fly under the radar politically. Darrell is a competent competitor, but he’s never dominated a season (like Mike “The Miz” Mizanin or Landon Lueck), so he’s often able to slide to a final without making himself a target. That may not sound too impressive, but remaining out of elimination is most definitely an admirable skill. And when Darrell does find himself in a final, he pushes his team to win because he knows second place doesn’t count for anything. Darrell should have won five finals in a row, but when confronted by a drunk Brad Fiorenza on The Ruins, Darrell put his boxing training to use by beating the hell out of Brad. Production kicked them both off the show and Darrell lost his chance at an easy victory.

After The Ruins, the secret on Darrell was out. Wes and Kenny booted him off Fresh Meat II in the first elimination, and Cory Wharton purged him from Dirty 30 right when the game started. Darrell came close to a final again with Invasion of the Champions when he manhandled Zach Nichols and eliminated Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio, but Chris “CT” Tamburello got the better of him in the final elimination.

There’s no way Darrell will ever catch up to Bananas’s seven championships (I wish he had the chance, but the casting department ignores too many old timers). If we’re fortunate, we’ll see Darrell kick ass in a final one last time. During Invasion of the Champions TJ Lavin asked Darrell about his motivation. Some people would say they’re fighting for their family or trying hard to be the best. Darrell said, “I’m here to win the money… ’cause I like winning money.” Did I also mention the dude is funny?

Posted in The Challenge Hall of Fame, TV | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Treasured Track: blink-182 – “What’s My Age Again?”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

What’s My Age Again?” changed my life, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I’d enjoyed plenty of music before blink-182, but true music infatuation didn’t exist for me until I first heard “What’s My Age Again?” on the radio. Mark Hoppus’s song about a self-sabotaging man-child is such an easy story for a teenage boy to relate to, and the song is catchy as all hell. It sounds like pop music with an edge and rock music that hits with quick jabs. It’s pop punk, and blink-182 introduced me to it.

The song bubbles up with Tom DeLonge’s clean guitar picking, but it isn’t long until the distortion kicks in while Mark shows us what a bad boyfriend he is. The chorus is easy to sing along to, and it’s made better by Tom emphasizing the back half of lyrics. It’s also nice how Mark changes the chorus up depending on the preceding verse (making a simple song a bit more complex) as the story continues. I have a preference for the third chorus though, probably because of my grade level when I first heard it:

“And that’s about the time she walked away from me.
Nobody likes you when you’re 23
And you still act like you’re in freshman year.
What the hell is wrong with me?
My friends say I should act my age,
What’s my age again?
What’s my age again?”

I must have listened to this song thousands of times. During those formative years of my life I was more of a Mark fan (though I loved Tom too), and I wonder if that’s due to my first favorite blink song. “What’s My Age Again?” and Enema of the State helped me through the rough times of high school, and I’ll always appreciate blink-182 for that. I have a prediction that I’ll be writing another Treasured Track article about blink, because there are so many that had an impact on me. Alright, time to watch some naked men running.

Posted in Music, Treasured Tracks | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment