[The following contains spoilers.]
If one had to set an exam question for children on Imploding Fictions’ podcast The Amelia Project – and one day somebody might well find themselves having to do this – then an inevitable question would be: “In what way is The Amelia Project like cocoa?” or “How strictly accurate is cocoa as a metaphor for The Amelia Project?” The Amelia Project is a show that comes with its own suggestive signature drink. Twin Peaks was like black coffee, in being dark, powerful, sweet, and bitter. James Bond was ice-cold and all shaken up like a vodka martini. Is, then, The Amelia Project accordingly as velvety and luxurious as a cup of cocoa?
The first thing to note is that The Amelia Project is comparing itself to la crème de la crème – the cocoa from the Parisian café Les Deux Magots, the headquarters of the Surrealists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and, lately, Philip Thorne, one of the podcast’s co-writers. Øystein Ulsberg Brager, l’autre Magot, is based in Oslo and Alan Burgon, their main actor, is an émigré Scot in Vienna. These people are actually, for the crew of a podcast, experienced international theatre-makers, with enough nous between them to stage a Lear or a Hamlet. Moreover, their podcast is a painstakingly made product, one that dwells only in professional studios and goes to exhaustive lengths to achieve naturalistic dialogue. The Amelia Project is thus very far from being knocked up around a kitchen table.
Yet here they are all trying to hide behind some cocoa! If somebody constantly prattles on about how much they enjoy cocoa, you are bound to think that they are bumbling and frivolous. The Surrealists were hardly fuelled by cocoa; Sartre, if he ever drank cocoa, would have done so with amphetamines stirred into it and in between mouthfuls of thick cigarette smoke; cocoa would not have rested easily upon Hemingway’s alcohol-awash stomach; and one also suspects that rather more than a few spoonfuls of chocolate powder have gone into The Amelia Project. Let us slip a teaspoon in and turn the liquid carefully over. There is foam – creaminess – sugar – and uh, what’s this? – something hard and sharp, some residue that won’t melt away into the chocolate.
We’ve discovered the postmodernism. In truth, it will not really do to term The Amelia Project a comedy. It is susceptible to being admiringly dismissed as some stylish fluff, a story that is all too patently showing its colours for Wes Anderson, but there are powerful muscles flexing beneath the cute fur. The usual landscape of a comedy is here: we have a firmly middlebrow tone and some staunchly nice characters who are always rolling drolleries around. But there is no genuine anarchy – no hilarity in fact – and there is often no butt to the humour. Instead, this is a playground for postmodernism and its self-consciously whimsical cleverness.
One of the hallmarks of POMO is its self-referentiality. A postmodern work of art is always fooling about with itself; its characteristic strategy is to undermine its own storytelling and to make you uncomfortably conscious of how artificial it is. POMO has had a fairly undistinguished history as an arts movement, in inspiring unloveable conceptualism and spurious novels. If The Amelia Project was a novel, it would be recognisably a terrible one, but the same could be said of What’s the Frequency?, another exhilarating avant-garde podcast with a sharp postmodern talent for disruption. Hence in these two trailblazers, narrative gambits that would seem tiresome in a literary sphere come to feel strangely refreshed. Perhaps POMO has been all the time looking for podcasts.
A typical episode of The Amelia Project goes something like this. A client with a suitably well-stocked backstory visits The Interviewer (Burgon) in the offices of Amelia. The applicant wishes to disappear and fake their own death. At first the Interviewer sounds offputtingly whimsical, but once he has become interested in the story, he is abruptly cool and competent. Over the dregs of the cocoa, he devises a fabulous manner of death for the applicant, as well as a diverting new life. The new life is duly launched, like a Royal Navy battleship, with a bottle of champagne. Every episode ends with the cocoa drunk and the champagne being poured. The story of a life has been told and retold and we have never left the office.
This process obviously resembles an audition, in which an actor is interviewed about themselves and they in turn learn about their new role. It is also as loose as a writer’s brainstorming session. Amelia “collects stories.” When outlining new lives for Elizabeth Barlow (Samantha Lawson) and Alicia Cairn (Megan Crain), the Interviewer plunges rhapsodically into flights of unrealistic plotting. Any obstacles or contradictions are dispensed with as blithely as when small children invent adventures for their dolls (e.g. “We’ll remove your brain… then Stacy Jones’ brain… then he’ll swap the two around and seal back up your heads.”). The recordings that we are listening to are in effect preliminary notebooks or sheaves of impulsive scribblings. The tenth episode, “Melissa Menken,” which features a character (Kudra Owens) who can hop back and forth through time, reads like a notebook in which the pages have fallen out and been jumbled together again in the wrong order.
In episode nine, “Percy,” the show is served in its raw material, like a glass of cocoa powder. Percy (Tom Middler) complains that “I’m a fictional character in a podcast” whilst the Interviewer advises that all they need to do is wait for the episode to finish. This could be potentially cruel or disillusioning, and the production needs to draw upon all of its creamy charm in order to wrench our attention away from its self-inflicted chest wound. Percy’s revelation would come at the end of most postmodern narratives; such self-referentiality is often viewed as, say, an awakening from a dream. It is therefore impressive that The Amelia Project is able to resume, essentially unaltered, after such a shake to its sleep.
As with What’s the Frequency? and its hero Walter “Troubles” Mix (Karim Kronfli), The Amelia Project judiciously exploits the charisma of its lead voice performer. In lacking a name and a backstory, The Interviewer is a uniquely neutral figure, neither an applicant nor a new role. I have an instinct that his past would be very dark – that he was once an axe murderer or a doctor who had poisoned all of his patients – and that, in having chopped off the dark side of his own personality, the remainder is too fun to have any further practical application. The Cambridge Geek compares him to Brian Blessed, though I think that there might be a few more lights turned on. The Interviewer displays an exclamatory tic that possibly issues from General Melchett (Stephen Fry) in the sitcom Blackadder (e.g. “Well butter my buttocks and pepper my pecker!”). I have a distinct memory of Melchett saying something like this but, after some cursory internet searching, I cannot turn up a ready example of the exact phrasing ever occurring beneath his moustache.
The Amelia Project plays with so many different ideas in its first season that we might fear for its stamina. Is there enough powder left in the jar for another round? Interestingly, in this respect, it is not clear whether “Veuve Clicquot,” the last mini-instalment, is a prospectus of plot ideas for season two or some leftover scraps from season one. This is another way in which The Amelia Project is not quite cocoa. Far from supplying familiar comforts and niceties, the show’s success really depends upon ever more audacious experiments with the formula.