Even as I grow increasingly restless with celebrity interview podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron, Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird, Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist — if only because the more I get to know celebrities, the more mundane their lives seem to me — I am increasingly obsessed with narrative podcast, especially those that can be connected directly or indirectly to This American Life. Radiolab and Serial are obviously the big ones, although I am also a fan of Death Sex and Money and Criminal.
My latest obsession is The Mystery Show, the third podcast from Gimlet Media — spearheaded by former This American Life contributor Alex Blumberg — hosted by another former TAL contributor Starlee Kine (at this point, I could probably complete my entire Pajiba 5 exclusively exlusively TAL contributors, current and former). Kine — who contributed the Phil Collins segment to my all-time favorite This American Life episode, “The Break Up” — is sort of taking a page out of the Serial handbook and producing a podcast devoted to mysteries.
However, The Mystery Show is completely different in tone and subject matter (there are no murder investigations, for instance, and each episode is self contained). Instead, Kine is devoting a weekly podcast to solving mysteries that cannot be solved through any other means. “Every week I solve another mystery. Mysteries that cannot be solved online. Mysteries that you can’t solve yourself.” She’s basically turning private investigations into a series of podcast. The mysteries she’s solving are personal and the stakes are not nearly as high as in Serial, but the results — through three episodes, so far — have been intensely gratifying and life affirming.
Take the second episode of the series, for instance. In it, a relatively obscure author who wrote a book that very, very few people ever read spotted Britney Spears carrying a copy of the book in a paparazzi photo in 2008. The author, Andrea — a huge Britney fan — wanted to know what Britney Spears thought of her book.
Finding that out isn’t an easy task. Britney Spears is not someone that can be approached on a sidewalk and asked simple questions. She rarely gives interviews, and when seen in public, she’s always surrounded by a mob of photographers.
Starlee Kine, nevertheless, was determined to find out what Spears thought of the book. That task took her on a spectacular journey through the lives of several people — including a really touching conversation with a customer service rep at Ticketmaster — before she ended up finding the answer. (For obvious reasons, I foisted this episode on Courtney Enlow, who reported back that she was “crylaughing” by the end).
The answers to the mysteries are secondary to the journeys, although the third episode — “Belt Buckle” — will blow you away in answering the mystery. In it, a man who came upon a lost custom-made belt buckle nearly 30 years ago enrolls Kine to find the original owner of the buckle so that he can return it to him. Kine, in turn, takes us through several phone calls and trips to a few cities to find the owner. I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but it all culminates in in the sweetest, most touching reunion between a man and his belt buckle that you will ever hear.
It’s a beautiful podcast from a gifted podcaster and listener (contrast to Maron/Hardwick). Based on her voice, I like to think of her as the little sister of Sarah Vowell — there’s so much wonder and genuine curiosity in her approach. I cannot recommend enough that The Mystery Show be added to your weekly podcast rotation, where it has quickly risen to my number two listening priority behind only TAL. Not for nothing, but it should also push Gimlet Media (whose Reply All podcast is already a weekly must-listen) into a serious contender in the narrative podcast market.