Best Podcasts of 2018: December
This month’s list is full of fascinating stories, including a deep dive into the mysteries of the English language, an impolite interview show, and the spooky tale of a trucker searching the backroads of America for her missing wife.
By David Adams
Alice Isn’t Dead (Night Vale Presents)
Brought to you by the co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, this wonderfully creepy fictional podcast recently finished its three-season run, which means all thirty episodes are bingeable just in time for the longest, darkest nights of the year. Keisha, a long-haul trucker, keeps an audio diary as she travels the country delivering cargo, but her real mission is to find her missing wife Alice, who worked for the same trucking company and has been gone so long she’s presumed dead. Recently, however, Keisha has begun to suspect that Alice is still alive. Setting out on her wife’s trail, she soon crosses paths with a serial killer who might not be human and a conspiracy so vast it threatens to tear the very fabric of reality. The supernatural elements and spooky sound design will raise the hair on the back of your neck, but it’s the show’s ability to conjure the specific moods of a road trip that makes it truly special. The podcast has also been turned into a New York Times-bestselling novel and there’s a forthcoming TV adaptation.
You Must Remember This (Panopoly)
Growing up in Studio City, California, Karina Longworth lived and breathed movies. But after a decade spent as a film critic at Cinematical and LA Weekly, she’d grown weary of formulating opinions on the hundreds of new movies released every year. In 2014, she launched this riveting, deeply researched podcast about “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” She’s covered everything from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial to the “parallel lives” of Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda. This season, she’s been fact-checking Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s notorious collection of La La Land gossip. By focusing on marginalized figures—many of them women who were exploited by their male bosses, co-stars, and lovers—Longworth offers fresh new perspectives on familiar subjects. She also shares excerpts from her acclaimed book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood that tell the fascinating, often tragic stories, of the women Hughes seduced, from Ava Gardner and Lana Turner to lesser-known, but equally compelling actresses such as Linda Darnell and Ann Dvorak.
The Dream (Stitcher)
If you’ve ever wondered why your Facebook feed is full of friends exhorting you to join them in selling skincare products, dietary supplements, and leggings, this podcast is for you. Jane Marie, a former producer at This American Life, noticed that many of her friends and family from rural Owosso, Michigan had become involved in multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) and set out to learn why. She discovered that the line between legal MLMs—where you make money by selling a product and recruiting other people to do the same—and illegal pyramid schemes is so blurry it’s practically nonexistent. Marie outlines the history of organizations like Amway, Mary Kay, and Herbalife, and reveals that as many as 99% of those who join MLMs lose money. She shares the personal stories of her relatives whose dreams of fast cash failed to materialize, and explores why and how these shadowy companies target suburban and rural women. Well reported and genuinely empathetic, The Dream is perfectly timed for an era when the President of the United States and two of his Cabinet members—Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson—have significant links to MLMs.
The Allusionist (Radiotopia)
Winner of the Smartest Podcast prize at the 2018 British Podcast Awards, this English language-obsessed show is for word lovers of all stripes—from those curious about the origins of the phrase “beyond the pale” to those who want to know what the worst swear word is and why (hint: it begins with the letter “C”). Host Helen Zaltzman is a comedienne and co-creator of the popular podcast Answer Me This! who studied Latin, French, and Old English in school. She brings brains, wit, and a charming British accent to a show where you’ll learn that the first official usage of the word “bullshit” was in 1915, in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Triumph of Bullshit,” and that the word “orange” in reference to the fruit comes from first-century India and the Sanskrit word for the orange tree: “naranga.” Most episodes of The Allusionist are less than 30 minutes, so it’s the perfect accompaniment to your morning routine.
Death, Sex, and Money (NPR)
The title says it all for this charmingly impolite interview show. Host Anna Sale has an infectious laugh and a delightfully direct manner that convinces celebrities, listeners, and even her own friends and family to share deeply personal stories with the world. Standout episodes include Jeff Daniels on his relapse after fourteen years of sobriety, listeners describing how cheating has impacted their relationships, and a 22-year-old “professional sugar baby” on why the older men she dates don’t think of her as a sex worker. A huge part of the show’s appeal is hearing other people, Sale included, admit that they don’t have all the answers to life’s most difficult questions. Serious yet lighthearted, earnest yet laugh-out-loud funny, Death, Sex, and Money is a great place to turn when you’re looking for a moment of catharsis after you’ve had a long day at work or discovered that your blind date once made out with your middle-school teacher. Sit down, pour a glass of wine, and listen to someone who’s been there, too.
Before it was an Amazon Prime show starring Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Sissy Spacek, Homecoming was a groundbreaking conspiracy thriller podcast that ran for twelve episodes over two seasons starting in 2016. Featuring a buzzworthy cast and top-notch sound design, it was a huge step forward for fictional podcasts—there’s no narrative framework that replicates the familiar formats of news shows and investigative documentaries. Instead, listeners have to piece together the plot solely from phone calls, taped interviews, and overheard conversations. Multiple timelines must be unscrambled and scene locations often are deduced from background noise. The effect is to heighten the attention paid to the actors’ excellent performances and to make the central mystery—what happened years ago at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center for returning soldiers—feel as personal to the listener as it is to the characters. With the launch of the TV show, the podcast creators have released several new episodes discussing the process by which they adapted an audio-only story to a visual medium. It’s fascinating to track the differences and similarities between the versions, and to get a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.