In some ways, the podcasting world is fortunate. It’s difficult to record a show from home—hosts have been climbing into their closets and building pillow forts in hopes of approximating the acoustics of the studios they can no longer access—but it’s not impossible. Even as television and film productions have ground to a halt, new podcasts pop up every week to address the particular needs of this moment. The format is nimble and its creators inventive. And it provides us some much needed relief in many forms.
This year has yielded news podcasts that offer daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as shows especially designed to distract and comfort us. This list focuses on the latter category, a nourishing mix of comedy, conversation and fiction. Some are quarantine-specific: They offer home cooking tips, stories to distract little ones and advice on managing mental health issues in isolation. Others simply allow listeners to escape—to another era, to other problems, to a fictional world. Persevering is hard. These shows make it a little bit easier.
Let’s get this out of the way: Dead Eyes is petty. Comedian Connor Ratliff was about to begin filming a small role in the Tom Hanks-produced series Band of Brothers nearly two decades ago, when he lost the part because Hanks allegedly thought Ratliff had “dead eyes.” This rejection from the nicest man in Hollywood haunted Ratliff and arguably derailed his Hollywood career for awhile. While it’s understandable that Ratliff could attribute so much import to a small moment—haven’t we all?—centering an investigative podcast around the incident does feel rather narcissistic. Fortunately, Ratliff knows this and plays it for confessional laughs. The show really comes to life during Ratliff’s discussions with his famous friends, including Jon Hamm and D’arcy Carden. In casual conversation, the celebrities share their own experiences of rejection, a rare insight into the arbitrary, brutal and sometimes bizarre world that is Hollywood casting.
The Atlantic’s excellent reported piece on how the government failed the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is a difficult but apt listen in this moment. Reporter Vann R. Newkirk II reminds listeners that Katrina itself wasn’t that bad: It was a Category 3 storm, not a Category 5. Rather, it was the levee breaks, the government’s fumbling and the media’s sometimes racist and classist coverage of the chaos that ensued that truly upended the lives of people caught in the storm. The show immerses listeners first in the flooded streets, then in the Superdome, where people were left without food or water, a potent reminder that when a disaster—any disaster—hits, it’s the poor who disproportionately suffer.
More people are cooking at home during quarantine, driven by some combination of boredom and necessity. But limited access to groceries can challenge even the most experienced chefs. Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook author and chef Samin Nosrat (who also stars in a Netflix show that shares a name with her book) and veteran podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway (The West Wing Weekly and Song Exploder) have teamed up to answer any and all quarantine-cooking questions. Have no idea what to do with the bags upon bags of beans you grabbed in a hurried, panicky trip to the grocery store? Need to bake a cake, but you’re completely out of baking powder? Want to join the sourdough-starter trend? They’ve got you. The combination of Nosrat’s unwavering optimism and Hirway’s inquisitiveness makes for joyful listening.
Mary Poppins herself is here to save your children from going completely stir-crazy. Since shortly after quarantine began, Oscar winner Julie Andrews has been crawling into a closet soundproofed with pillows in order to host story time for kids 10 and under. Andrews has published more than 30 children’s books with her eldest daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, and the two take turns reading aloud from both classic and new kids’ books. As Andrews makes her way through her personal collection of children’s stories, her dulcet voice is bound to soothe rambunctious people stuck at home, whatever their ages.
Oh, Hello: The P’dcast
Longtime pals, collaborators and Big Mouth co-stars Nick Kroll and John Mulaney wrapped up a Broadway run of their show Oh, Hello in 2017. In it, they played crotchety old New Yorkers who love tuna fish, hate most people and invite big-named comedians like Jon Stewart and Will Ferrell onstage for impromptu conversations each night. (A filmed version of the staged show is currently streaming on Netflix.) Now, they’re starring in a spin-off podcast for charity. The series parodies mystery podcasts like Serial and promises to delve into the life and death of Princess Diana, but actually takes wild diversions into the biographies of their characters, George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon. It’s the funniest thing to happen to podcasting since the start of quarantine.
Phoebe Reads a Mystery
Phoebe Judge is best known as the host of the true crime podcast Criminal, one of the few examples of that genre that makes listeners feel smarter rather than voyeuristic or exploitative. (I’m looking at you, Tiger King.) But Judge’s soothing timbre is the real highlight of her work, and it’s elevated her to celebrity status in the podcasting world. During quarantine, Judge has found solace in reading whodunits, and she decided to create a new show to share her passion. Every day, Judge reads a chapter from a mystery, including works from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Most recently, she’s been reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, widely considered to be the first detective novel. Judge’s renditions rival the best audiobooks—and best of all, they’re free.
New York Times columnist Kevin Roose traced one young man’s journey down the rabbit hole of the internet, from liberalism to the alt-right and back again, in his 2019 article “The Making of a YouTube Radical.” Roose set out to prove that YouTube’s algorithm, designed to keep people watching, led to the political radicalization of disillusioned or lost young people who got sucked into toxic virtual worlds on the platform. Roose is now spinning that story into a longer podcast about how the internet has transformed our culture and politics by recommending videos, social media posts and search results that pull us in different ideological directions and then feed us with content that makes us feel vindicated for forming those views in the first place. Despite the dark holes that Roose reveals, he’s not a pessimist: After all, the internet has become a somewhat more welcoming place in recent months as friends and family connect on Zoom calls, through online games and over social media. Instead Roose sets out to prove that tech companies can make the Internet more productive and less hostile—and that they really ought to invest in that future.
Staying In With Emily and Kumail
Comedic couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are well equipped to serve as social-distancing gurus: as fans of Gordon and Nanjiani’s semi-autobiographical film The Big Sick know, Gordon fell ill and was put into a medically induced coma early in their relationship. As an immunocompromised person, she’s no stranger to self-isolating when she feels unwell—and she has unusually good advice for dealing with the mental health ramifications of quarantine, given that she was a therapist before she became a Hollywood screenwriter. On the podcast, the couple shares the daily trials of isolation—like accidentally dropping a glass of water onto their beloved Nintendo Switch. When she’s not cracking jokes, Gordon offers ways to manage feelings of depression and anxiety. Their chemistry and care for one another, and their loving banter, buoys this podcast above other celebrity shows.
Wind of Change
New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe became obsessed with a rumor he heard years ago that the CIA actually wrote the Scorpions’ hit 1990 ballad “Wind of Change” as a way to propagandize democracy in Germany, where the song was first released. Though it never hit no. 1 in the U.S., the song did top the charts across Europe in the year after the Berlin Wall fell. Keefe sets out to prove his theory in a meandering but addictive podcast that establishes the U.S. government’s long history of using American pop culture as a cover for its covert affairs. The episodes divert into tales of how the government has leveraged Howard Hughes, Nina Simone and an entire fake film crew to execute its missions. (Remember the movie Argo?) While these may feel like diversions from the main thrust of the series, the joy of this podcast is getting lost in the mystery.
The Wire: Way Down in the Hole
Many pop-culture podcasts have struggled as the production of new movies, TV series and albums have ground to a halt. But the Ringer’s stable of nostalgic rewatch podcasts—Binge Mode,The Rewatchables, The Recappables—have proven quarantine-proof. Now hosts Van Lathan and Jemele Hill have now given us a great excuse to rewatch what many believe to be the greatest television show of all time: The Wire. Be warned: This podcast is full of spoilers, but it’s worth it. Their recurring “file away for later” segment brings attention to astonishing foreshadowing you probably missed. Upon revisit, the HBO series, which ran from 2002-2008, proves (perhaps unsurprisingly) far ahead of its time, highlighting racial and economic tensions that would explode in American political life years later. Lathan and Hill find that creator David Simon’s analysis of structural problems with America’s justice system, political system and schools has aged shockingly well. The clothes, maybe less so.