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10 May 2024

Bodkin is a very 21st-century media satire

The journalism jokes are the highlight of this comedy thriller, which pokes fun at the clichés of true crime podcasting.

By Rachel Cooke

I do wonder about Bodkin. Did its writer, Jez Scharf, call it Bodkin while he was still at work on it, hoping to find a better name later? (Maybe it amused him more than calling it, say, “Project X”, and then it just stuck.) Or was it always going to be Bodkin? Either way, I kind of like it. As you’ll know, a bodkin is a big, blunt needle, and I think the word has a pleasingly bathetic quality, something that’s rather perfect for a series that hopes to take the mickey out of true crime podcasts, most of which are the very definition of anti-climactic. Bodkin! Here it comes, full of promise and padding and hot air.

Bodkin is made by Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, and it bills itself as a dark-comedy thriller – which means, basically, it will either be shorter on laughs than you were hoping for, or shorter on excitement, or both. Personally, I’ve been longing for someone to lay into podcasts, lately the refuge of every bullshitter and grifter in the land. But here the satire feels too muted, lost in a thicket of shamrock jokes that are doubtless aimed mostly at the Americans in the audience (the kind of Americans who fell in love with The Banshees of Inisherin). All the same, I quite like it: the acting, the plotting, the generalised weirdness.

Will Forte, of Saturday Night Live fame, who plays Gilbert Power, a thoroughgoing chump of an American podcast host, is very funny, only a cigarette paper between the way he carries on and (one imagines) the real thing. Obsessed with “storytelling”, all he wants are the clichés and enough red herrings for 12 episodes. “But there’s still some quaint stuff here, too?” he asks plaintively, when a taxi driver tells him Ireland is the tech capital of Europe, and points out a huge server farm way off in the dripping greenness.

Bodkin is the name of the village in West Cork where Power, his British research assistant Emmy Scissor (Robyn Cara) and an Irish journalist called Dove (Siobhán Cullen) are attempting to produce a podcast about three people who disappeared 25 years ago after the Festival of Samhain (like Halloween, but Gaelic). All three of them work in some capacity for – wait for it! – the Guardian; Power, or so Dove’s editor has informed her, is going to save them all with his audio skills (he had a hit podcast in America). But she is a reluctant member of the team. In London, she was on some kind of big whistle-blowing investigation, and she has been dispatched to Ireland to stay out of trouble while the police subpoena her witness statements (or something).

And yes, if you know anything at all about contemporary journalism, this stuff is the funniest part of Bodkin by far, especially the fact that Emmy, who’s about 12, worships Dove, who’s about 30 (as all truly hoary and experienced investigative reporters are on television), and longs to be her. Kids, I’m afraid that on the staff of our liberal presses, youthful admiration went out with blogging. Also, if a woman like Dove told a woman like Emmy to f**k off, as she does every five minutes, she would find herself in some kind of struggle session faster than you can say Yotam Ottolenghi.

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But, rather like a podcast, I digress. Naturally, Bodkin’s citizenry isn’t happy about this project – “And people will listen to it?” they keep asking Power, which seems like a perfectly fair question to me – and, at every turn, they impede its progress: gently at first, then more violently. As someone notes, one trope of podcasts is for them to appear to be about something at the outset, only for an entirely different story to emerge in the telling, which is also the case with this drama. While something is going in Bodkin, it has nothing at all to do with the fairies, standing stones and misty melancholy of Power’s dreams. I’m not sure this show will be a hit. But, for my part, I’m enjoying Dove’s sunglasses and the gags about release forms, and perhaps it will encourage other, more daring types – step forward, John Morton, the writer of W1A – to look at the increasingly strange and spurious realm of audio, and to get properly stuck in.

Bodkin
Netflix

[See also: The internet has ruined true stories]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink