Programming note: There’s a new episode of Wait, What? if you haven’t heard it! Scroll down past this entry to find it. And then scroll down past that entry for Jeff’s epilogue to a conversation therein, which he posted a day before it went live, because… recording things in advance can be weird. Oh! And also, if you’re a Patreon supporter and haven’t received the details about the Wait, What? Advent Calendar, email us and let us know. And now, on with the show — or rather a post that, like Jeff’s Sunday entry, isn’t about comic books at all. Who says this isn’t the Wait, What? age of, uh, not writing about comic books?
There’s something appealingly meta about using the website spin-off of a podcast to review another podcast, but it’s accidental; midway through listening to The Message — a mini-series that tries to do for podcasting what Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds did for radio way back when — I found myself thinking, oh, I should write about this for the website. And so.
The premise of The Message is straightforward: Cyphercast, a podcast that’s part-Serial, part-Radiolab, happens to be shadowing/recording events as a code-breaking research company when they get approached by the NSA with a recording that’s 70 years old, and believed to be from extra-terrestrials. Oh, and 1 in 10 people who’ve heard it have died mysteriously. (Of course they play the recording on the podcast, and of course, they’ve built up the “curse” aspect enough that there really is an instant of wait, do I actually want to listen to this bit? when they do.)
There’s more to it, of course — spoiler alert: the curse isn’t what anyone thinks it is! — but as a hook, it’s laid out remarkably well in the first couple of episodes of the eight-part series. Having mainlined the whole thing over the course of a day (which isn’t hard; the longest episode is around 20 minutes, with the regular eps topping out around half that), I’m tempted to say that the opening couple of episodes are by far the best of the series, purely because the hook is so strong, and laid out at such a pace that it feels organic and, as much as is possible, believable.
That feeling falls away as the series progresses. It’s not that the plot is flawed in theory, but the execution gets increasingly sloppy as things go on, with more and more big moments happening faster and faster. I suspect that the intent is that the listener is supposed to take this as an increase in intensity and danger for the Cyphercast crew, but instead it feels as if everyone involved is losing confidence in the primary gimmick of the show; one of the things that made Serial what it ended up being was the feeling of constant discovery, and the red herrings that came with that — while the audience (and host Sarah Koenig) learned new things every episode, they weren’t always that interesting, and didn’t all connect up towards a common goal.
The Message‘s faux documentary, on the other hand, is far more tidy, and that becomes more and more frustrating as the series continues. Nicky Tomalin, the fictional host of the show, doesn’t just manage to record all the important moments that she’s present for, she also manages to be present for all the important moments; as things go on, and the scale of the story escalates wildly — understandably, given that the podcast lets the curse-inducing recording out into the wild in the universe of the show — Nicky remains in control of everything that’s going on, and that just feels false in a way that builds to eventually undermine its own premise.
Similarly, the desire towards keeping things narratively clean undermines the premise in another way: this story has an ending. While the lack of closure annoyed many fans of Serial, the alternative here just underscores how false the experience has become. Within the confines of the series’ conceit, there was not only room for, but arguably demand for, an inconclusive ending of some sort — midway through, I found myself hoping that Nicky herself would fall to the curse, and the show would just stop, with a solemn Blair Witch-esque epilogue explaining that she was dead — but what is actually there is something that has been set up too well, and wraps up plot threads that would have been better left dangling.
Despite that, there’s something to The Message. Found footage podcast storytelling feels like something worth exploring, albeit doing so in a way that actually focuses on what works and doesn’t in documentary podcasts, and translating the very particular quirks of the medium into fiction. As an early step, though — and also, perhaps more importantly, as a shaggy dog alien story — The Message is fun enough, and well worth a listen. (All the episodes are here, or through iTunes if you’re like me.)
Just don’t blame me if you find yourself dying in unlikely circumstances soon afterwards.
Allow me to be the first of probably many to say: if you were intrigued by the premise of The Message but let down by the execution (I couldn’t even finish it), Limetown is for you. Same Radiolab/Serial-esque setup, a more thoughtful consideration of podcast practicalities, and (so far) a much more interesting, deep story. Also, less “ACTING!”
All true. Interesting podcast that starts with considerable promise and a cool hook, but not so much loses its way as turns out to have too neat and tidy and clear and trite a view of what its way is. (also true: what Matt M says – Limetown is a similar but considerably superior product, much more sophisticated in many ways. You should absolutely check that out. It’s really good.)
What’s most interesting, though, is what you’ve left out of your review. Not sure if it’s missing because you’re not aware or because you don’t think it’s relevant. If the latter, I’ve got to say I think it’s potentially highly relevant to The Message’s shortcomings.
THE MESSAGE is not just some random new faux-factual narrative drama. It’s an advert. It’s the first product of ‘GE Podcast Theatre’. It’s story development and production was led by GE’s ‘creative agency’ (i.e. I assume ad creatives). The original idea for it was driven by ‘a GE-dedicated unit comprising a media agency and a marketing shop’. It’s essentially an attempt to re-invent podcast advertising as an echo of 50s style brand-sponsored programming streams on TV/radio. At bottom, it exists specifically to present the GE brand to a podcast audience.
None of which I have a particular problem with – indeed I think it’s kind of an interesting model and I listened to the series specifically because of that – but I do wonder if the narrative shortcomings that develop as the series progresses can’t pretty simply be explained by reference to the conception, purpose and production history of the series. However much sincere effort went into its development, its deepest roots are not in the creative desire to tell a particular story, but in the desire to creatively communicate a commercial brand and its ‘values’ to a particular audience.
Can’t help but think that the fact that the very similar in conception LIMETOWN is better – in basically every way that matters – kind of suggests fiction works better when the fiction itself is what it’s all about.
I also love Limetown, though I will say there is some “‘ACTING!'” in it, some corniness, and it looks to be leading to and overly conclusive ending. I’m excited about the future of podcast fiction though.
I’ll throw in another one, ‘Hello from the Magic Tavern’. A normal guy from Chicago, a talking badger/shapshifter, and a mystical wizard make a podcast in a tavern in the magical land of Foon, with a rotating cast of weird guests. It’s entirely improvised, but they’re pretty good at staying consistent with old gags, and it leads to some great callbacks later on.