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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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution