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153

[The following contains spoilers.]

If Tychy’s “Podcast Review” feature is a merry ship that is out in search of exciting, unexplored islands, it has recently run aground on a pair of cheerless rocks. Two-Up Productions’ Limetown and Haunted Griffin’s Tunnels are audiodramas from the days when podcasting was still new-fangled. They respectively debuted in 2015 and 2016. My mistake has been to commit to writing an overview of each one (there are two seasons of the first and three of the second). There is a lot to listen to and, as the weeks have stretched to months, a growing feeling that I should be getting more in return for such an outlay of time. I always worry that my reviews are too long, but in this one there seems to be a ratio of about ten minutes of listening for every word written.

Neither podcast could be ever mistaken for the other and yet they have so much in common that it feels wasteful to review them separately. Both begin with what is now an almost mandatory gambit amongst fictional podcasts. Like The Black Tapes, The Polybius Conspiracy, A Scottish Podcast, et al, both Limetown and Tunnels mimic the format of the blockbusting true-crime podcast Serial (2014-) and subvert it as inevitably as night follows day. Where Serial was presented by the investigative journalist Sarah Koenig, Limetown has at its head the American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock (Annie-Sage Whitehurst) whilst Tunnels is fronted by a younger sleuth, Robert Chauncey (Robert Chauncey).

Limetown is a broad international thriller whilst Tunnels is altogether more hayseed, in being set entirely in Griffin, a dot on the map of Georgia, USA. Limetown is as glossy, moneyed and resourceful as a Netflix series, whilst Tunnels today begins with Chauncey apologising for the quality of the acting in the first season. It is strange, therefore, that both podcasts should soon converge around a common defect. Each of their central journalists is clearly and even intentionally devoid of a charisma that might otherwise power their show.

Haddock and Chauncey are both undeniably dowdy. Haddock is called Haddock, which immediately lightens her of a lot of dignity. Every listener of Limetown will have at some point toyed with the conundrum of whether Lia Haddock or Captain Haddock from the Tintin adventures is the most successful detective named Haddock. Lia sounds starchy and unimaginative and rather like a nun and very much like a public radio journalist. We will somehow deduce that she is celibate, not least because the biggest crisis in her personal life ostensibly revolves around a distant uncle. She has the personality of a minor character – in a typical drama, she would be on the margins of the story and she would be killed off early. When she does eventually go missing, I think that most listeners are inclined to write her off as wastage.

Chauncey (and I’m here referring to how he appears as a character in the podcast) is more likeable and yet a similar deal is being cut with him. He is prim and very straight-laced. He is one of the smaller and furrier creatures in the podcast’s forest of characters. He frets that being taken out for lunch by one interviewee might constitute corruption. Comically, a looming love interest is provided for Robert in the person of the local librarian Carrie (Carrie Darden), but she bails on him after the second season, presumably along with the voice actress, leaving him to plod unconcernedly on. He wasn’t making much progress with her anyway and it is probably preferable for us to have been spared the cringeability of Robert in love.

With both podcasts, the calculation appears to have been that the humdrumness of the reporters would bring the otherworldly phenomena that they investigate down to Earth and closer to home. Limetown was an experimental scientific colony in which some subjects were fitted with telepathic implants. Tunnels describes a magical and randomly Scandinavian cult that hangs out in some sewers beneath the streets of Griffin. After the format, the second most familiar feature of these audiodramas is that, like Tribulation, The White Vault, and any podcast that is set on Mars, they each depict a fantastical and often paranoid community that is set apart from normal society. Or perhaps this is simply an extension of the format. The investigatory podcast is always roaming in search of some secretive community to infiltrate, burst open, and essentially mate with.

Nevertheless, as each podcast begins to settle, it finds that it is more restricted than enhanced by the choices that it has made. Both Limetown and Tunnels grow out of their original formats. In its second season, Limetown no longer comprises episodes from Haddock radio, although it still loosely adheres to the notion that it is made up of material artefacts, namely taped interviews that are conducted by a bounty hunter who calls herself Charlie Latimore (Kate Eastman). Yet God alone is apparently recording Charlie’s own interrogation and the occasional cinematic application of background music scotches the presence that we are listening to a documentary anymore.

Tunnels likewise abandons itself, at some point shedding the premise that we are listening to sequenced episodes of Chauncey’s podcast. We grow ever more liberated behind-the-scenes until, at last, the characters stop mentioning the podcast and it is only still accessible to dutiful listeners within Chauncey’s fictional world.

Tunnels falls into chronicling the machinations amongst some pompous, small-town egos and, if you take out the rakes (i.e. the monsters), it is basically E.F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. Given that the rakes are prone to snarling and yelping friskily like Chihuahuas, the impression of teacups being rustled and net curtains being twitched only ever intensifies. Tunnels, like Limetown, never sprouts any legs as horror and it instead comes to function best as a tale of intrigue (although in the third season the hunting of the rakes provides a diverting kind of safari narrative). This podcast has a fine choir of villainous voices at its command and it often sounds like a heated contest between Dick Dastardly impersonators.

During the first two seasons, the show attempts to get by on the idea that plotters such as Barnabas (Russell Gold) aloofly and absent-mindedly confide in the young podcastmaker. It sounds like a rather charming glitch in the format that Barnabas is indifferent about having his wrongdoing broadcast all over the town. Eventually, however, the plotters are restored to a more natural privacy and Chauncey’s podcast is relieved of the difficulty of offering a window into their designs.

This leaves the problem of what to do with Chauncey. Stripped of his love interest, and also of any actively curatorial role, he is for a while lined up to be the “vessel,” a promising new supernatural position. Even here, though, he loses out to Pete Davis (Charlie Dukes), a character who is greatly more at home in the drama. It is significant that the superfluous hero is, to tilt him into reality, the writer of the series as well. Chauncey had no doubt originally planned to manufacture a story in which he was the heroic cub reporter who was destined to win Carrie and rescue her from some sinister monsters. Unfortunately, the rest of his characters grew in power and took over his story, Carrie left, his podcast was marginalised, and his monsters shrank to a yapping sideshow.

Lia Haddock is similarly toppled as she tries to get to grips with a vast and overcomplicated conspiracy. Yet if Lia is inept and generally credulous, Limetown‘s second season answers her frankly with a female investigator who is cool, confident, achingly sexy, and supremely resourceful. Whereas Lia is gobbled up by the story that she is researching, Charlie eats her way out of it. Charlie’s triumph is that she employs monumental willpower to negate the apocalyptic “tech” that had previously dominated the story. Her interrogator (Henry Leyva) tries to use telepathy to read her mind but hers is a mind that requires imaginative interpretation rather than a mere reading. With this, all investigative podcastmakers – all Lia Haddocks and Robert Chaunceys – are being firmly rebuked. You cannot just plod around collecting facts one by one. Supposing that these details have been read wrongly and that they add up to no story at all.

Charlie transmits a new narrative into her interrogator’s head that is, ultimately, rather like a podcast being played in headphones. I have to confess that I would have benefitted from more help to understand how this process works exactly. Does Charlie temporarily dislocate the tactical side of her consciousness, rather as people with multiple personalities have to seal off the mind into separate chambers? But the arresting horror of Limetown’s finale is that it freely admits to the flimsiness of the story that it has been committed to up until now. If we have been collecting all of the parts of this story, and carrying them carefully along with us, using all of the painstaking detective work of the investigatory podcast, then the ending horrifies us with a surprising smirk. We are near to being the victims of an old-fashioned practical joke.

Indeed, Charlie sounds openly derisive as she wrecks the podcast. Ripping up holes in the plot, she asks why her interrogator, “a civilian with no military training whatsoever,” could have possibly captured her. We had previously overlooked this, and countless other similar flaws, in order to keep our disbelief suspended. She scoffs about “selling” Lia, rather as the podcast has itself sold Lia’s story to publishers and television producers. She offers two different endings to the podcast and then laughs that they are just stories. If we have been conscious that Limetown’s characters often have rather silly names (the town manager was called Oscar Totem), Charlie will cause fans of this show to shudder when teasing, “what kind of a name is Cleo anyway…? About as good a name as Charlie.”

With the paraphernalia of the investigatory podcast in freefall, the grand narrative with all of its maddening, convoluted details has unravelled into nothing. This podcast is in the final analysis somewhat like Limetown itself. In at least in one retelling of its story, the town goes down the drain, with its people’s bodies dissolved in quicklime and poured away.

So if my “Podcast Review” pirate ship is at last dislodged from the rocks, Charlie has lent her weighty arm to the heave-ho-ing. In dropping only last December, the finale of Limetown feels very important and in fact much more so than the acclaimed and highly influential first season. In its preoccupation with the artificiality of “stories,” it also holds an unexpected affinity with such elite podcasts as The Amelia Project and What’s the Frequency?