Best podcast episodes of 2019 (Part 1 – Reply All)

As I was compiling this post, I realised I had a problem: I was going to have a top ten which was mostly episodes of Reply All.

It is tech podcast with a difference, focusing not on the technology itself, but on the stories of those who have found their lives impacted by the internet in surprising ways.

It is largely made by This American Life veterans and uses a similar storytelling style, but for my money hosts PJ Voght and Alex Goldman and the rest of the team behind it have an even greater knack for finding subjects that are both revealing and have a very human core.

So here are my top 5 Reply All episodes of 2019:

5) Dark Pattern [June 27th]

Christopher Hitchens told a story about going to Prague whilst it was still under communist rule “determined to be the first visiting writer not to make use of the name Franz Kafka.” Only to be arrested and have his captors tell him he had no reason to know why he had been detained!

The lengths companies go to in order to prevent Americans exercising their legal right to file their taxes online for free make clichés about ‘Kafkaesque’ situations similarly hard to avoid.

4) 30-50 Feral Hogs [October 10th]

In August 2019, a little known twitter user responded to a tweet about banning assault rifles by asking rhetorically: “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Unsurprisingly, this decision made him a global laughingstock. It also prompts PJ Voght to ask why wild pigs became such a problem that someone would sincerely believe they need to military weaponry to deal with them. A strange (and very American) tale follows.

3) The Great Momo Panic [March 14th]:                              

It is easy to deride the parents and teachers who fell for a hoax story about a “demonic chicken lady” encouraging children to commit suicide. However, this episode makes a persuasive case that part of why this fake story caught on is that virtually all of its constituent elements (including messages about committing suicide being snuck into Youtube videos aimed at children) reflect things that have actually happened. Google comes out of this episode especially badly, having allowed Youtube to become a major presence in children’s lives, whilst taking little responsibility for what they see.

2) The Crime Machine (parts 1 and 2) [October 12th]       

The story of the NYPD’s embrace of data-driven police almost feels like a Greek Tragedy. At first, reformers used it to make policing not only more effective but fairer. However, over time what was once a useful tool, essentially hijacks the entire department, creating incentives for officers to conceal crimes and target ethnic minorities.

1) The Roman Mars Virus [11th April]                                   

An investigation into why a listener’s car stereo crashes when it plays 99% Invisible (and only 99% Invisible) turns into a loving homage to podcasting itself.

Best Podcast episodes of 2019 (part 2)

Having yesterday considered the best episodes of Reply All, today I’m moving on to the crème of the other podcasts out there:

5) Can My Stutter Be Cured? [Crowd Science]

A touching look at a group of patients struggling to overcome stammering.

4) The Fictional Presidencies of Hilary Clinton [Primetime]

Emily VanDerWerff uses popular TV shows to analyse America’s strange relationship with Hilary Clinton. Could the same women really inspire both Lesley Knope and Claire Underwood?

3) Mrs Sherlock Holmes [Criminal]

Criminal specialises in true crime stories that avoid straightforward mystery tales. Nonetheless, episode does raise the question why no one has made a TV series based on the life of Grace Humiston, a New York heiress born in 1869, who, despite her gender, became not only a crusading lawyer but also a famed criminal investigator?

2) Don’t Accentuate the Positive [Happiness Lab]

Anyone who finds the Onion headline “Perky Optimist Brings Joy Wherever She Leaves” as funny as I do, is sure to find validation in this episode. Yale psychologist, Dr Laurie Santos uses research and anecdotes to make the simple, but somehow still counterintuitive point, that only imaging success leaves us unprepared for failure and ultimately makes us more miserable.

1) The Missing Crypto Queen and the Dropout

I’m going to mess about with the format of this list in two ways for this one. Firstly, I am choosing two podcasts not one. I’m also choosing whole series rather than individual episodes. However, these two podcasts are both compelling and make a fascinating pairing.

They both centre on the women behind multi-billion dollar scams. Elizabeth Holmes won plaudits as “the new Steve Jobs” and persuaded some of the richest and most famous people in America to put their names and money behind a plan to revolutionise blood testing, which rested on devices that did not work and were probably physically incapable of ever doing what Holmes claimed they could. Ruja Ignatova sold an imaginary crypto currency to thousands of people around the world.

Ignatova was likely a con artist from the start and very possibly working in league with organised criminals throughout. Holmes appears to have been more a narcist, who genuinely convinced herself she could fake it until she made it. What unites them was their ability to harness the mythos and tropes of Silicon Valley to prevent their victims properly scrutinising the product they were selling.

Why 'Knives Out' is my favourite film of 2019

If you have not seen Knives Out yet; then whatever you are expecting it to be; expect something different. I intend to keep that surprise intact. Therefore, I will avoid saying anything too specific beyond noting that it is homage to the Agatha Christie style ‘stately home homicide’ whodunnit.

The best – and truest – complement I can pay it, is that it is an ideal use of cinema. By that, I mean it deserves to be seen in a bespoke place, specifically reserved for watching films. It works on myriad levels and no detail in it is incidental. Therefore, it rewards complete concentration. However, because of the effort that has gone into crafting the witty script, elegant editing and pitch-perfect performances; intense attention comes effortlessly to the audience.

Indeed, the quality of the filmmaking is something that can be savoured in and of itself. It is a pleasure to behold, even above and beyond the enjoyment of the film itself.

Knives Out absolutely merits a second viewing. Partly because there are more jokes than anyone can take in on a single viewing. However, it is also because, watching it again allows you to observe how writer/director Rian Johnson seeds information, creates and then subverts expectations, and finetunes the characterisations to make everything first fizz and then explode.

However, it is the joy of my first viewing that will stay with me. I confess, I was pretty unhappy when I went in to see it. I found the final stretch of 2019 quite a slog, more marked by doubts and fears than anything else. One film can’t change that. But one as engrossing and immersive as Knives Out stopped me dwelling on all the things that had been bothering me, for a few hours at least. It allowed me to follow a trail intriguing clues leading me on a humorous trail involving compelling characters, and forget about everything else for a while.

Clearly, escaping into fantasy long-term is unhealthy, but I’d argue that short breaks from an often-difficult reality are not only ok but actually vital for our wellbeing. That’s why I am so grateful films as good as Knives Out exist. Now and again we all need to kill time.

5 other films I loved this year:
The Farewell
Avengers: Endgame
If Beale Street Could Talk
Can you Ever Forgive Me
Ad Astra

Why 'Maybe You Should Talk to Someone' is my favourite book of 2019

This year I have read the stories of spies, terrorists, serial killers and generals. Yet the book that had me flipping pages the fastest mostly takes place in an ordinary office in suburban LA, where regular people receive standard pyschotherapy.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb – a TV producer and journalist turned clinical psychologist – examines the purpose of therapy and how it works. However, it is not a monograph. Instead, Gottlieb conveys this message through the interlinked stories of four of her patients, along with her own experiences in therapy.

Gottlieb spent most of her TV career working on ER, so knows how to craft drama. So she chooses a case with plenty of mysteries and revelations to serve as the spine of the book. That allows her to create cliffhangers and deliver emotional gut punches.

However, the real appeal is the way Gottlieb recreates the intense empathy inherent in therapy on the page, drawing her readers into the lives of other people and then showing us how people who seem utterly lost can, with the right help, find a path to contentment.

Hat-tip: The book was flagged up to me by YANSS and Longform

The rest of my top ten of the year:

10. Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren

9. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

8. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

7. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

6. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

5. Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

4. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

3. Yes to Europe by Robert Saunders

2. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Siren Call of Safety: My Rise of Skywalker review

I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity

A fan’s lament

I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.

Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.

The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.

These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.

The perils of playing it safe

However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.

In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.

I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.

However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.

Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.

Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!

It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.

I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.

Let the past die – Kill it if you have to

Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.