Last year, the journalist Leon Neyfakh left Slate, and his excellent recent-history podcast “Slow Burn,” to join Luminary, a new subscription-driven podcast app that made its dramatic and wobbly début this spring. In the first two seasons of “Slow Burn,” Neyfakh explored Watergate and the Clinton impeachment; his equally excellent new show, “Fiasco,” explores the Bush-versus-Gore election of 2000, a time of hanging chads, butterfly ballots, the Elián González controversy, Dan Rather’s folksy aphorisms, and the insidious mutation of American political norms. “The American people witnessed mistakes that had never been made on such a spectacular scale before, and these mistakes were destabilizing,” Neyfakh says, of election-night TV coverage. “They expanded the range of what was possible—and underscored the futility of trying to predict what would happen next.” Like “Slow Burn,” “Fiasco” gives perspective on our current era without making explicit connections to it—and, somehow, manages to revive an excruciating political moment without making it excruciating to relive.
In 2018, the brilliant writer, performer, and director John Cameron Mitchell, the co-creator of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” embarked on a “Hedwig”-based tour to raise money for his mother’s medical care; this year, also on Luminary, he released “Anthem: Homunculus,” a musical podcast in which he plays Ceann, a man with a brain tumor who is “driven to crowdfund my survival.” The show takes the form of a low-key memoir via telethon, coming to us from the Center Point Trailer Court, in Kansas, where Hedwig once lived. In narrative and song, “Anthem: Homunculus” presents stories about Ceann’s life—one features a lover who wants to be a doula to the end of civilization, another contains a recalled encounter with William S. Burroughs (“In the future, everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes”)—while exploring the pains and pleasures of the Internet and what Ceann calls “palliative democracy.” Like “Hedwig,” the series matches a freewheeling aesthetic with Mitchell’s fiercely intelligent wit, and in doing so makes us feel like its beleaguered hero’s fond co-conspirators.
In “Nice Try!: Utopian,” from Curbed and Vox, the great Avery Trufelman, of the venerable design podcast “99% Invisible” and her own outstanding spinoff series, “Articles of Interest,” brings her curiosity and wonderfully listenable voice to a realm where design meets reality, with dramatic results: utopian communities. The first episode explores the seventeenth-century English settlement at Jamestown, cannibalism and all. The second investigates the much less revolting story of Chandigarh, an Indian city designed by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, intended to be a “cosmopolitan, secular city of the future, unfettered from Indian history.” It’s both touching and unsettling to hear these tales of the practical limits of good intentions. Future episodes will explore everything from Biosphere 2 to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s imagined feminist utopia of Herland—a refreshing change of pace, one hopes, from recurring thoughts of handmaids and Gilead.