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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 next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game