When the seasoned producer Josh Bloch happened to run into an old acquaintance, Sarah Edmondson, whom he hadn’t seen in years, she quickly informed him that she’d just left a cult. And so, a podcast was born. In Uncover, Bloch follows Edmondson as she untangles herself from a world she’d been part of for more than a decade. Depending on whom you ask, NXIVM is a lifestyle company, a self-improvement pyramid scheme, a “sex cult,” or itnone of these; an ongoing federal investigation might help work that out. The group’s high-profile members include the actress Allison Mack, the Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman, and its founder, Keith Raniere, all of whom are facing criminal charges. Bloch argues that, unlike what so many cults or gangs do to attract members—exploit a person’s isolation and lack of self-esteem—NXIVM grew primarily by tapping into people’s egos and their desire for betterment and access to a vast network. Listeners get to hear Edmondson reflect on becoming a national news story, too, because Bloch’s reporting started before Edmondson spoke to The New York Times for a piece about NXIVM. During a year that saw a flood of stories about cults, Uncover does a great deal to help audiences understand what it means to be part of such a world.
Gateway Episode: “The Branding”
For its third year, Serial heads to multiple courtrooms in Cleveland, Ohio, far from the suburbs of Baltimore and the battlefields of Afghanistan—the settings, respectively, of its first two seasons. The change isn’t just geographic; the interrogation is different, too. While the first two seasons focused on specific crimes—the murder of Hae Min Lee; the desertion of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl—Season 3 follows producers Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi as they tackle multiple cases in Cleveland and “the whole criminal-justice system.” Serial recorded everywhere inside Cleveland’s Justice Center, including courtrooms, hallways, and judges’ chambers. The first installment, “A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Center,” is an apt prelude for the backroom brokering and paralysis of an overburdened government that color every story Koenig tells. But the young woman’s bar fight featured in that first episode is chump change compared with what comes later. Serial’s dour thesis statement about the system devouring the individual sticks with you. By the time the series gets to “You in the Red Shirt,” with its horrific depiction of an undercover cop beating an innocent man and wrongfully arresting him, a glass-half-full listener might believe recompense is finally coming. Serial, through its incredible reporting, admonishes anyone who has such optimism.
Gateway Episode: “A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Center”
During the first scenes of The Horror of Dolores Roach, a few things become clear: More playwrights like Aaron Mark should write podcasts; Daphne Rubin-Vega, who portrays Dolores, kills in the audiosphere; and this show is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Dolores has just finished serving a 16-year prison sentence, and when she returns to her Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City, she finds that everything has changed. The only thing that hasn’t is Empanada Loca, the restaurant that her buddy Luis, played by Bobby Cannavale, still runs. In fact, the show revolves around this restaurant and a specialty empanada and the gentrifiers who can’t stop eating it. It’s unclear whether this podcast fits into the horror genre until the third episode—but it does. And the horror (oh, the horror) has a lasting, personal effect, because your specific imagination will dictate how you cope with the gory notion of say, two people having sex in a freezer next to a dismembered body. If you listen at the wrong time, you might just lose your lunch. And yet, the show shouldn’t be missed. It’s created a new type of immersive theater: Because Dolores is also the show’s narrator, the listener, in part, becomes her—and that is by far the most horrifying part of all.