As a longtime fan of This American Life, RadioLab and other documentary-style podcasts, I was skeptical at best when I began learning about new fiction podcasts populating the iTunes library. Trying a few only confirmed my bias. The storylines were thin, the voice acting was underwhelming, and even the okay ones sank under a misbegotten effort to masquerade as fact. (Life lesson for would-be audio producers: Don’t try to be Orson Welles on your first go-round.)
But in the last couple years, the fiction podcast has improved by leaps and bounds. Today, the podcast landscape is rife with high-quality fiction productions. Like campfire stories for grown-ups, our favorite fiction podcasts have it all: Richly imagined characters, gasp-worthy plot twists, and a minimum of one good cliffhanger per episode. Some of these podcast dramas are grounded in history, while others are structured around present-day culture and events, and a few somehow push the boundaries of the radio medium in a way that transcends the senses. Honestly, compared to some of these enthralling productions, TV feels like a poor substitute.
If you’ve never explored the world of podcast drama, you’re in for some real fun. Here’s our shortlist of the best fiction podcasts.
The standard by which all fiction podcasts should be measured, Homecoming features incredible sound production, A-list voice actors (including Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, Amy Sedaris, and David Schwimmer) and — most importantly — a script as deft and restrained as in shows like Mad Men or The Sopranos. Homecoming follows Heidi, a staff therapist at what seems to be a re-entry facility for American soldiers home from war. But as she discovers a special connection with inmate Walter Cruz, new information comes to light that makes both of them rethink what they’re really doing there. When Homecoming first came out, each cliffhanger episode left us chasing our tail until the next one appeared. Aren’t you a lucky stiff, getting to binge them all at once.
You can hear a cultural shift in this podcast — the script, the production values, the acting, all of it really speaks to the fact that fiction podcasting has finally hit its stride. Passenger List is a tale of international intrigue, concerning the aftermath of a mysterious airline crash. The main protagonist is Kaitlin Le, a college dropout whose brother was on the plane — tortured by guilt over her final interaction with him, Caitlin assumes the role of investigator, obsessively tracking down the living connections to each person on the plane’s passenger list, hoping to find answers for why the plane went down. Sure, parts of the plot are fairly improbable, but that fact that you won’t notice them speaks to how far podcast drama has come.
Love + Radio
It has to be said that the stories on Love + Radio might be true. Then again, they might not be. The lines between fact and fiction are often as blurry as a late-period Monet, and that’s the point. Created by Nick van der Kolk, a self-styled audio renegade who’s been around nearly as long as podcasting itself, Love + Radio presents the stories of bounty hunters, gender-bending performance artists, vigilantes, religious zealots, and others who live just within the margin of human reason. This is one that you’re going to want to share with your friends, which is fine; just be selective about which friends you share it with. Not everyone can handle it.
The Angel of Vine
Created by two show business veterans, this podcast is their faithful homage to Hollywood noir. In The Angel of Vine, investigative journalist Oscar Simons stumbles upon a series of field recordings made by a private eye in the 1950s regarding a gruesome murder. (Cold case aficionados will recognize parallels with the infamous Black Dahlia murder.) Fascinated, Simons takes on the unsolved case, diving into a labyrinth of archived clues older than he is. Joe Mangianello, Patton Oswalt, Alfred Molina and Kevin Pollak headline a cast of voice actors so evocative, you’ll feel as if you’ve been watching a movie. From its vintage vibe to its cinematic production values, to even its occasionally campy misstep, this podcast will delight Dashiell Hammett devotees and True Detective fans in equal measure.
Asking for It
Sexy, subversive, gritty, whimsical, darkly funny, achingly sincere … describing this new CBC podcast takes at least a handful of your best adjectives. Produced by Kaitlin Prest of The Heart/Mermaid Palace, this limited-series podcast takes the familiar plot of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and uses it to explore the world of intimate partner violence. The sharp exposition and layered storytelling techniques spin an ethereal, evocative web with an urgent call to action at its center. Required listening for anyone who wants to be a better person in 2020.
The Orbiting Human Circus (Of the Air)
From the producers of sweetly spooky horror podcast Welcome to Nightvale, this podcast is a rich tapestry of audio magic and larger-than-life personalities. Created by Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Julian Koster, the story relays the adventures of a shy yet stage-struck janitor who is drawn into the larger-than-life universe of a fantastical radio show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not only does the show feature the voices of screen actors like Tim Robbins and Charlie Day, as well as Broadway talents like Mandy Patinkin and John Cameron Mitchell, but it’s also produced using vintage recording and broadcasting equipment from radio’s earliest days, when the world first encountered stories told by voices drifting invisibly through the air. A little bit of Lemony Snicket, a little bit of steampunk Sherlock Holmes, a lot of surrealism, this one is perfect for a lazy afternoon walk with your favorite psychedelics.
This thriller from award-winning author Naomi Alderman puts the listener front and center, dropping you into the role of hero as soon as you pop your earbuds in. The immersive story begins with an EMP attack that sends Walker, the protagonist and role that the listener takes on, on a dangerous journey across Scotland, attempting to make a critical delivery while running from both the police and a mysterious organization known simply as The Burn. Along the way, you’ll find yourself encountering a host of interesting characters and unraveling a complex web of intrigue. The podcast is best enjoyed when you’re on the move — say, working out or walking — as the story’s soundscape swirls around you from all directions.
With all the philosophical weight of Star Trek and a snarky sense of humor, Wolf 359 is a must-listen for sci-fi fans. What begins as the lighthearted recordings of Douglas Eiffel, a desperately bored and perpetually sarcastic communications officer aboard a secluded space station, ultimately transforms into a compelling audio drama bursting with riveting character development that includes a compelling A.I. storyline that will tug at your heartstrings. When the series starts, the crew’s mission seems ambiguous, fluid, and, at times, almost nonexistent. But as a larger story begins to unfold, Eiffel and his crewmates find themselves in the middle of a tangled conspiracy that will unearth their past mistakes, test their resolve, and bind their lives together forever whether they like it or not. The series ended its run in summer 2017, so you can go full Netflix and binge this baby from beginning to end.
Hello from the Magic Tavern
If goofy comedy gems like Comedy Bang Bang! and My Brother, My Brother, and Me are must-haves on your weekly downloads list, then you’re in for a real treat with Hello from the Magic Tavern. This addictive adventure takes the improv podcast to new heights, with the story of Arnie Niekamp, a Chicagoan who falls through a portal behind his local Burger King and finds himself stranded in the magical, D&D-like world of Foon. Every week, alongside his newfound boon companions Chunt (a sex-induced shapeshifter who most frequently takes the form of a badger) and Usidor (a long-winded, eccentric wizard with a close friend named Pizza Skull), Arnie broadcasts a podcast back to the land of Earth using remnants of Burger King’s Wi-Fi that seep through the portal. The show features a rotating parade of guests, each of whom take on their own magical identity and engage in a ridiculous game of improvisational world-building. The deeper you dive in, the more compelling and hilarious the storyline becomes as you listen to series regulars and repeat guests try to one-up one another’s insane tangents while trying to remain true to the established cannon.
We’re Alive: A Story of Survival
Got a hole in your heart where your flesh-fueled love of The Walking Dead used to live? Resurrect your appreciation for the genre with We’re Alive: A story of Survival. This fast-paced zombie apocalypse survival drama follows soldier Michael Cross, who finds himself living a real-life horror story when an undead infestation begins to take over Los Angeles. He joins up with a hodge-podge group of survivors seeking resources, shelter, and safety while struggling to determine if they can trust each other. As the makeshift family grows closer and works to create a safe haven for themselves, they begin to uncover a series of disturbing clues that will leave them wondering which is the greater of two evils: the undead or their fellow humans. When you’re finished, you can move right into We’re Alive: Lockdown, a continuation of the story that introduces new characters and answers lingering questions about old ones. A third series in the We’re Alive family is also in the works, though a final release date is yet to be announced.
The Bright Sessions
The Bright Sessions begins as a series of recorded therapy sessions led by Dr. Joan Bright, who has a particularly interesting clientele: She is a shrink for “atypicals,” or people with special abilities that range from mind-reading to time travel to extreme empathy. As we meet more and more of Dr. Bright’s patients, a darker story begins to unfold; one of a shadowy organization that performs questionable research on atypicals, a tortured patient who abuses his abilities, and the ghosts of Dr. Bright’s own past. At the same time, the series explores the inner struggle of Dr. Bright’s patients as they learn how to accept their strangeness, control their powers, and find their place in the world. The series is currently in its last season, with two spin-off series planned for release in 2019 and 2020. Series creator Lauren Shippen is writing three YA novels that will take place in The Bright Sessions universe, and word on the show’s website is that it’s also currently in development for television.
Lesser Gods is a dystopian mystery that tells the story of a future world in which humans are no longer capable of reproduction. After a series of failed government attempts to save humanity, the five youngest people on the planet are now 22 years old and living a life of pure excess under constant government supervision. We are pulled into the narrative just as an unknown force begins targeting humanity’s last generation and a strange murder mystery begins to take shape. Known as the Final Five, the group of young adults serves as an ever-revolving cast of narrators, with each episode being told by a different combination of characters. The tone of the series is equal parts dark, mysterious, and sexy, and the narration style is more like an incredibly well-produced audiobook than a radio play, with a soundscape that peppers the story with perfectly placed bursts of gritty sound effects and eerie music.
Wynabego Warrior: The Tale of John Waynnabe
John Waynnabe has wanted to live the cowboy life since he was a young boy watching Westerns from atop his Paw’s knee. In Wynabego Warrior — introduced in the first episode as “a tale of peril and danger, redemption and renewal” — he decides to get an RV and head west in search of the life he has always dreamed of. His journey of self-discovery turns into a full-fledged Wild West adventure when John meets the McCoys, a western Kentucky family battling to keep their land and home out of the no-good hands of the greedy “Deal Baron.” The story is bursting with charm, charismatic characters; tongue-in-cheek humor; and a heart as big as John’s dreams. From the twangy introduction that begins the first episode to the action-packed conclusion of the show’s most recent season, this podcast is an irresistible feel-good adventure that is sure to put a grin on your face.
Bonus: The Audio Archive of Joe Frank
If you’re the kind of person who likes ordering off the “secret menu,” or frequents those bars hidden behind a shoe store where you have to say a password, consider this the podcast equivalent. Joe Frank, who passed away in 2018, is a singular figure in radio, seeming at once to come from out of the deep past and from the future. He made a career of being the audio production world’s best kept secret, working briefly for NPR’s All Things Considered before leaving to create his highly idiosyncratic brand of sonic collage. His stories (or whatever you want to call them) are mesmerizing, as is the voice he tells them in, though it’s nigh impossible to say what any of them are about. Most of his productions are story fragments told in a world-weary stream-of-consciousness as the narrator moves from one nightmarishly mundane scenario to another, all heavy with a sense of sinister foreboding. If you took the movie Mulholland Drive and fed it plenty of amphetamines, this might be what you’d get. Frank never had a podcast of his own–instead, his body of work is scattered over a number of different platforms. Fortunately, a large number of his pieces have been collected into a Soundcloud stream for your bingeing pleasure. Any of the episodes will launch you into another dimension, but we recommend starting with “Reality Check.”
If you burn through all of these, you should check out our favorite podcasts for road trips, our top overall picks for 2019, these productive podcasts to help get your life together, podcasts to listen to at work and gym, podcasts perfect for your commute, the greatest history podcasts, some spooky horror podcasts, or The Manual’s own podcast. And if you’re new to podcasts, you’ll need one of the top apps for listening.
Article originally published by LeeAnn Whittemore. Last updated by Chelsea Batten
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