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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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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