Audio dramas have been around for almost as long as radio, but the podcasting boom has inspired a renaissance, with fictional offerings from “Homecoming” to “LifeAfter” to “The Truth.” Image: Edmon de Haro/The New York Times
Audio dramas have been around for almost as long as radio, but the podcasting boom has inspired a renaissance. Just as streaming platforms have transformed the way in which we consume television, the on-demand nature of podcasts makes it possible to pick and choose a genre of radio play — like science fiction, sports drama or horror — and binge the entire thing rather than wait for weekly installments.
Given the mind-boggling amount of TV currently being produced, adding narrative podcasts to your pop culture plate may seem overwhelming. But binge listening is easier to fit into daily life than binge viewing — it’s a surefire way to make chores or exercise fly by — and these six fictional podcasts represent a worthy alternative to any audiobook.
One of the most compelling and star-studded psychological thrillers of the last five years also happens to be a podcast, which has aired two seasons since its 2016 debut. Catherine Keener stars as Heidi, a caseworker at a military facility whose ostensible purpose is to help veterans readjust to civilian life. Through her sessions with a traumatized soldier (Oscar Isaac) and her interactions with her shifty boss (David Schwimmer), the writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg gradually unspool chilling truths about the Homecoming facility. The show has been adapted into an Amazon series — the first season cast Julia Roberts in Keener’s role, and an upcoming second season will star Janelle Monáe. But don’t sleep on the meticulously executed original, which blends slow-burn suspense with a workplace black comedy.
Starter episode: “Mandatory”
‘The Bright Sessions’
Great audio drama often plays on the voyeuristic thrill of listening in on conversations we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) ordinarily hear, and “The Bright Sessions” puts a science-fiction twist on that feeling. The show focuses on a fictional therapist, Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) and a group of troubled “atypicals” — young people with supernatural abilities — who are under her care. Each episode takes the form of a recorded therapy session, interspersed with Bright’s notes about the patient. The show is at its most riveting when it details the psychological toll that superpowers would realistically take on young minds; one character’s prowess at time travel makes her unstable and anxious, while another character’s ability to hear thoughts becomes so intrusive she can barely get through the day. Through a deceptively simple format, the writer and director Lauren Shippen has created a gripping character drama with blockbuster-worthy plot twists.
Starter episode: “Patient #12-D-10 (Sam)”
One of the earliest podcasts in this genre, Jonathan Mitchell’s anthology fiction series has been creating “movies for your ears” since 2010, and its stories have been featured on “This American Life” and other syndicated radio shows. Each episode of “The Truth” tells an original short story, enhanced by subtle sound design choices; occasionally a story will span multiple episodes, as in last year’s #TimesUp tale, “The Off Season.” In the first of four chapters, a wannabe journalist breaks into a seemingly vacant Hamptons mansion and comes face to face with its owner, a TV host who’s in hiding after being accused of sexual harassment live on air. What unfolds is a beautifully performed, tense two-hander whose ripped-from-the-headlines quality never undermines its ability to genuinely surprise.
Starter episodes: “Tape Delay,” “The Off Season, Part 1: Banished To The Hamptons”
‘Alice Isn’t Dead’
There’s arguably no better road trip companion than a great long-form audio drama, and “Alice Isn’t Dead” is an intoxicatingly creepy love letter to the open road, using stream-of-consciousness narration to recreate the isolation of being alone on the go for a long stretch. Written by a co-creator of “Welcome to Night Vale,” Joseph Fink, and presented as a series of audio diaries, “Alice Isn’t Dead” follows a truck driver (Jasika Nicole) on a quest to find her wife, long been presumed dead. As Nicole’s strangely poetic narration steers us through countless towns and grim interludes at diners, motels and rest stops, the show takes on a quality that’s alternately dreamlike and nightmarish. Though it takes an early turn into intense supernatural horror, “Alice Isn’t Dead” gets most of its thrills from its evocative portrayal of an anxious mind, and the maddening effect of grief.
Starter episodes: “Part 1, Chapter 1: Omelet”
Shortly before Issa Rae shot to prominence as the creator and star of the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” she created a serialized audio drama that showcased her ability as a dramatic writer. In “Fruit,” a professional football player — going by the pseudonym “X” — recounts his rise to athletic stardom, his conflicted feelings about his profession, and a recent sexual awakening. After many years of repressing his sexuality, X has acted on his feelings for men, and is now reassessing his self-image as a larger scandal unfolds around his team. Though it’s now four years old, “Fruit” still feels fresh in its account of sexuality, expectations and hyper-masculinity in sports.
Starter episode: “1st & 10”
Following the success in 2015 of “The Message,” which followed a scientific team trying to decode an alien message, Panoply and GE Podcast Theater re-teamed the following year for another addictive sci-fi thriller, this one delving into the intersection between death and artificial intelligence. Ross, a low-ranking and possibly unstable FBI employee, has learned to cope with the death of his wife by compulsively listening to recordings of her voice on a fictional, social media site named VoiceTree. One day she starts responding, revealing that her consciousness has been virtually preserved in the app. “LifeAfter” rewards close listening, layering in character beats and details that gradually build toward a sinister bigger picture.
Starter episode: “Lif-e.af/ter Ep. 1”
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