Sandra: the gripping fiction podcast about voice-activated assistants

Starring Alia Shawkat, Ethan Hawke and Kristen Wiig, Sandra seems to be about one thing when it’s actually about another.

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Podcasts are often valued for their ability to grip listeners. The biggest narrative shows (Serial, S-Town, Dirty John) are structured around cliffhangers that make them difficult to give up. Gimlet Media, the force behind shows such as Reply All, is offering a fictional alternative to true-crime juggernauts. Unlike the other big names in podcast fiction (Limetown, Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, The Bright Sessions), Sandra doesn’t pose as a non-fictional audio recording. With a dialogue-heavy script and big-name cast, it has far more in common with traditional radio plays.

Its seven episodes follow Helen (Alia Shawkat) from her first day at Orbital Teledynamics, the corporate giant behind the nation’s favourite virtual assistant, Sandra (Kristen Wiig), a take on Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Orbital is, strangely, based in Helen’s bleak hometown of Guymon, Oklahoma. It’s as close as she can get to a new life without moving.

The nifty premise is that Sandra is not a robot serving humanity, but a horde of real people posing as an omniscient omnipresence. Orbital employs a full building of workers, assigned different specialisms, to respond to Sandra’s users. Helen doles out facts about birds – but soon develops more personal relationships with those she helps.

Like the millennial mystery TV show Search Party (also starring Shawkat) or the slyly structured S-Town, Sandra seems to be about one thing when it’s actually about another: a second, secret story rooted in character. Shawkat’s deft oscillations between insecurity and determinedness make her a perfect fit for a story like this. Sandra teases you with the idea that technology is the villain. Then it reminds you: the real danger is other human beings. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war