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Why we like podcasts that break down TV episode by episode

From The West Wing Weekly to Gilmore Guys, we love shows about shows.

The changes to the way we watch television in the past few years have been well-documented: there are no end of articles about Netflix’s algorithms, double-screening and binge-watching. Whether you agree or not that we’re living through a new golden age of TV or that “if Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be writing TV dramas for HBO”, it can’t be denied that this form of media has altered beyond recognition in a short space of time.

Inevitably, the changes to television have changed the way we critique television. The explosion of digital-first journalism has played a big part here too – the infinite space and immediacy a website offers means that a review no longer has to be a certain length or try and introduce a show to the general reader. Now, a TV show, and the writing about that show, can appeal directly to its already-invested fans.

Anna Leszkiewicz, the New Statesman pop culture writer and my co-host on our podcast SRSLY, has been observing this shift in criticism for a long time.

“I often think about how The Wire’s David Simon, back in 2008, said, ‘Fuck the casual viewer’,” she said. “Simon wanted his audience to be engaged, committed, and interested in the minute detail of his work. Of course, The Wire’s influence was dramatic, and profoundly encouraged many TV writers to follow suit. 

“Our viewing habits have become less casual since then: with binge-watching on the rise, we’re happier to watch longer and slower-paced shows, with a greater level of intensity. The last decade has seen the rise of the avid viewer.”

Writing about TV has shifted away from straight reviewing. Places like The A.V. Club and Vulture have pioneered episode-by-episode recaps instead, allowing a much tighter focus on individual elements of the show.

“Recaps are written by and for the avid viewer of TV, who has little interest in a critic’s vague thoughts on whether the latest season of this or that show was broadly worth watching, but wants to dive straight in to the detail of their favourite programme, week by week, episode by episode,” Leszkiewicz said.

Where does this leave podcasts about television? There are plenty of shows, like Slate’s Culture Gabfest and our own podcast, which range across all pop culture and which will discuss a TV show in as much depth as one segment of about fifteen minutes will allow. However, in the past couple of years, I’ve become aware of a different kind of TV podcast – one which is devoted to a single TV show. These podcasts cover their chosen show in extraordinary depth, often devoting each episode of the podcast to a single episode of the TV show.

If you check the TV and Film category chart on iTunes regularly (and I do, since my show appears in it), you will have seen that the list is dominated by episode recap podcasts, such as The West Wing Weekly, Decoding Westworld, The Talking Dead, Game of Thrones The Podcast, Gilmore Guys and many others. They come and go with the TV show that they track, but I’ve definitely noticed more shows launching in this space in the last couple of years – with the exception of The Talking Dead, all of the shows I’ve listed there began in the last few years.

There are a few things all TV recap podcasts have in common: they feature two or three dedicated fans of the show discussing each episode in extraordinary detail, many have recurring features like the Gilmore Guys’ regular supercut of every pop culture reference from the episode in focus that week, and they rely on the personalities of the hosts to retain listeners who aren’t already fans of the TV show.

Gilmore Guys, along with The West Wing Weekly, also has regular guests. The fact that actor Joshua Malina is involved in the latter show means that they’re able to pull in guests associated with the original show, which several fans I spoke to cited as a major attraction of the podcast. They’ve even had The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin on the show.

Liam Stewart, a British student and an avid listener to this kind of podcast, told me that a lot of the time in a good TV recap podcast the show itself will become secondary to the characters and chemistry of the podcast hosts.

“The lack of restriction [in the podcast form] allows for drifting away from the analysis, which I know annoys a lot of people, but for me, it enhances the listening experience as you get to know the hosts better,” he said. “Plus, some of the funniest moments come from these random detours.”

Stewart named three shows of this kind that he listens to: Best of Friends, Gilmore Guys and All Men Must Die: The Game of Thrones PodcastThe creators of these shows are free to change up their formats however they desire, whether that’s Gilmore Guys responding to the recent Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls with a five-hour episode, or Best of Friends reviewing the Friends porn parody. Stewart said that he suspects that the latter “would never be allowed on a radio programme”.

Adam Amin, a sportscaster for ESPN in the United States, told me that the informal, chatty nature of these podcasts is what attracted him in the first place.

“Most of us who are fans of a show have very similar thoughts and discussions about these shows with other people,” he said. “Listening to the hosts in this medium just feels like eavesdropping on a friend's conversation.”

Amin started off with the West Wing Weekly because he is a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work, and then graduated on to Navigating the Newsroom. After getting into an in-depth discussion with his friend Steve Cimino about another Sorkin show, Sports Night, Amin said they realised that “hey, this is just like that West Wing podcast!”, and so the idea of doing their own show focused on Sports Night was born. Their show is called Those Stories, Plus. . . and they are now 12 episodes in.

“We figured that, as a member of the sports media field, I could add unique insight into the show and my work world and bring in interesting guests,” Amin explained. “Steve, as a writer and teacher, would be able to navigate through various topics that come up.

“It's been a tremendously fun side project for us both that has been well-received. We certainly don't consider ourselves to be at a level of popularity of those other podcasts mentioned but we seem to have a consistent following.”

Just as on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon have freed up TV creators to make longer, more ambitious shows that perhaps would never have been commissioned by conventional networks, so podcasting has enabled TV critics to examine shows in more detail, with greater originality, and just have more fun. 

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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