This year was a landmark one in podcast history. Adnan Syed, whose case was the basis of “Serial”’s explosive first season and of further reporting in “Undisclosed,” was freed from prison after twenty-three years. And as the media landscape continued to shift, with resulting shakeups roiling the podsphere—excellent shows ending, reins passing, audio talent adapting—great work continued to be made at all levels, from corporate behemoths to public radio to independents. Investigative reporting continued to thrive, but some of the most nourishing series lightened the mood, threading the form with humor, surprise, and joy—as when Tom Hanks appeared on “Dead Eyes.” Here are ten of the best podcasts I heard this year.
10. “Let’s Make a Sci-Fi”
The Vancouver-based production studio Kelly & Kelly, which made the very funny satirical true-crime series “This Sounds Serious,” has a knack for making tricky genres (fiction-style scripted dramedy, riffing-based documentary) enjoyably listenable. In “Let’s Make a Sci-Fi,” three comedy writers—Ryan Beil, Maddy Kelly, and Mark Chavez—set out to write a science-fiction show, but as they pitch ideas about German-shepherd-size crabs, three-mile-long intergalactic ships, and “space horses,” they have a hard time not making each other laugh. Each episode sees them enlist the counsel of an expert and discuss a new aspect of sci-fi world-building, but mostly the show is a refreshing exercise in understanding what the creative process is all about: imagination, risk, logic, amusement, and space horses.
9. “Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery”
This series, from WNYC’s Nancy Solomon, centers on a 2014 murder that sounds like the plot of a lurid mystery novel. A prominent and politically connected couple, John and Joyce Sheridan, happily married for forty-seven years, are stabbed to death in their suburban New Jersey home; the crime scene involves a toppled armoire, a fireplace poker, a missing murder weapon, and bedroom arson started by gasoline. This all leads to a bigger mystery: What the hell is going on in New Jersey? The handling of the case is suspect from the start. It’s ruled a murder-suicide, committed by John Sheridan—a “mild-mannered grandfather” and health-care C.E.O. with connections to three New Jersey governors—and then dropped; evidence is ignored and mishandled; likely interviewees go uninterviewed. Solomon, who covers New Jersey and its political corruption for WNYC, takes listeners on a revealing journey through the state’s tangled political, legal, and economic dealings via the people and projects connected to the Sheridans and their four sons—including Mark, a lawyer then working for Governor Chris Christie’s election campaign, who goes from being an “establishment guy” to a disheartened realist. It’s one of the best podcasts I’ve heard about how things happen, and often shouldn’t, in state government. Just before the series concluded, New Jersey reopened the case.
Jonathan Goldstein’s venerable human-connections podcast, now in its seventh season, is reliably great, and this year’s series is no exception; like “Normal Gossip,” a new and deservedly beloved podcast, it explores startling interpersonal stories with zeal and curiosity. But “Heavyweight” incorporates the subjects themselves, and endeavors to resolve a haunting issue from a person’s past—an important painting found in the trash on a Brooklyn street corner; long-ago miscommunications between middle-school best friends who were secretly in love; a mystery involving grief and beatboxing; a nineties VHS mishap, in which a teen girl tapes a Billy Ray Cyrus concert over her veteran dad’s TV interview. That Goldstein manages to navigate these delicate personal situations at all, let alone on a microphone, is consistently amazing; the show achieves a combination of warmth, humor, and depth that still feels rare, and is the very best of what the podcast form can do.
7. “Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s”
The Cree journalist Connie Walker, who grew up in the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, has brought several stories of crimes against Indigenous girls and women to international audiences through her podcasts, including “Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo” and “Stolen: The Search for Jermain.” In “Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s,” Walker investigates a more personal case, after her brother tells her a story: that their late father, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, once pulled a man over for reckless driving, realized that he was a priest who had abused him as a boy, and beat “the shit out of him.” Walker remembers her father as tormented and violent, but her younger siblings knew him as a better man; the story, she feels, could be “a clue” to understanding him. Her father had known the priest at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, where he lived as a boy, and Walker’s investigation leads her to the story of the Canadian residential-school system, which separated Indigenous children from their families, forcibly assimilated them into Anglo-Christian language and culture, and resulted in generations of trauma and abuse, much of it perpetrated by priests and nuns. As the episodes unfold, we hear from community elders who had been students at St. Michael’s, and even from a priest described as an abuser by Walker’s uncles. (The priest, now elderly and infirm, remembers the school fondly and tells Walker that child molestation is “not my style.”) “Surviving St. Michael’s” is an affecting family history within a dismaying sociopolitical one, and Walker’s sensitive production details not just the system’s painful legacy but the traditions—gathering in sweat lodges, picking sweetgrass for medicines—that have helped survivors heal.
6. “Articles of Interest: American Ivy”
The independently produced third season of Avery Trufelman’s clothing-design podcast, about so-called preppy clothing, asks big questions—What is democracy? What is cool?—that resonate far beyond the realm of the popped collar. “American Ivy” explores how collegiate style ultimately became mainstream style, via imaginative journeys not just to Brooks Brothers, Princeton, and J. Press but also to mid-century Japan, where the photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida’s 1965 preppy bible “Take Ivy,” shot on U.S. college campuses, codified an international sartorial language; the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where polo shirts and khakis became part of an effort to normalize white supremacy; and the flourishing Lo-heads scene of Dinkins-era New York, where Ralph Lauren attire got “remixed.” Trufelman has a gift for turning complex narratives into surprising, amusing fare. Further enhancing the aesthetic are the series’ theme songs, performed a cappella by the Tufts University Beelzebubs.
5. “Bone Valley”
In the tradition of investigative podcasts like “In the Dark” and “Suspect,” Gilbert King’s series, which he hosts and reports with the researcher Kelsey Decker, uses the story of a murder and its aftermath to shed light on institutional failings in the criminal-justice system. King, who won a Pulitzer for his book “Devil in the Grove,” from 2013, draws us in with an intriguing hook: a sitting Florida-circuit-court judge, Scott Cupp, enlists his help in correcting a miscarriage of justice. “Technically, I’m not supposed to be doing this,” Cupp tells him: he could lose his seat or even be disbarred. “But it’s, like, if I don’t do it, who the fuck’s going to do it?” He begs King to read the court transcripts in the case of his former client Leo Schofield, who’s been in prison for decades after being convicted of the 1987 murder of his wife, Michelle Schofield, who was found stabbed to death in a phosphate pit in Florida, when she was eighteen and Leo was twenty-one. King reads the transcripts, then devotes the next three and a half years to reporting. The state’s case was flimsy, and forensic evidence strongly points to a different suspect, Jeremy Scott. King and Decker unspool the story, set in a working-class community in Florida, in intricate detail—including in the final episode, in which they visit Scott in prison, with unforgettable results.
4. “Fiasco: The AIDS Crisis”
Leon Neyfakh’s previous podcasts have explored, with exquisite care, stories such as the Clinton-impeachment saga, Watergate, and Boston’s struggle with school desegregation. Their focus is the experience of living through history, often in eras now threatening to fade from memory. Neyfakh’s extraordinary new series, about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic and the forces that rallied to fight it, brings sweeping political and public-health narratives to life through unforgettable character details: a doctor haunted by memories of a man dying, in a Manhattan brownstone, surrounded by birds in his home aviary; a San Francisco neighborhood in which people, like the muscular mailman who always wore shorts, keep disappearing; an elegiac song about the closing of bathhouses. As ever, these stories resonate in the present, though Neyfakh avoids making the connections explicit; here, the presence of a young Anthony Fauci helps do it for him.
3. “Will Be Wild”
This series from the crackerjack team of Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein, who made the outstanding “Trump, Inc.” for WNYC, explores, in gripping vivacity and detail, the January 6th insurrection and its context. We hear from a Texas teen who tipped off the F.B.I. about his Three Percenter dad; from a federal intelligence official who gets an urgent warning while at the drive-through at Panera Bread; from a Capitol police officer. Marritz and Bernstein’s ability to zoom in on interesting characters and create vivid scenes is uncanny, and as in their previous series, about Trump’s shady business dealings, the result illuminates a subject that can otherwise retain a stubborn shroud of incomprehensibility.
2. “The Prince”
The Economist’s masterly eight-part biography of Xi Jinping, released around the beginning of Xi’s third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, also functions as a cultural and political history of modern China, and is astonishing not just in its novelistic storytelling but in its sheer reportorial gumption. The series’ Australian host, the Economist writer Sue-Lin Wong, enlists a whole host of experts, locals, fellow-reporters, and archival interviews to construct her narrative. She interviews Xi’s American hosts from a 1985 visit to Iowa, a persecuted Uyghur language teacher now living in Norway, a former Weibo censor living in Los Angeles. She begins with Xi’s childhood as the son of a Party official, then carefully illustrates how this “milquetoast” became an autocrat who believes that stability and control justify repression. Wong makes for an appealing guide, and her boundless curiosity serves as a refreshing counterpoint to an occasionally crushing narrative. In a bonus episode, she explains that the series title refers not just to Xi’s upbringing but to Machiavelli, who wrote that it was better to be feared than loved—and to the even more sobering idea that Xi is not yet at the peak of his power.
For more than a decade, Erica Heilman has been making an endlessly inventive, independently produced podcast about her Vermont community, revealing, through an almost miraculous level of attention, what life anywhere is all about. Heilman talks to people near her—road workers, barbers, interesting kids, hunters in a deer stand, the proprietor of an eccentric museum in an unheated barn—and learns about what they do and how they live. Some episodes have titles like “Forrest Foster, Independent Dairyman” and “Helena Becomes an American”; some are funny little satires; some are chapters of ambitious multipart series. Heilman has a keen eye and a good sense of humor, but her narrative tone is quietly serious, always focussed on her subject; the episodes create a feeling of deep, barely interrupted listening. Without sentimentalizing Vermont or her fellow-citizens, Heilman captures both who we are and the best of what we try to be. As she says about Forrest Foster, “He’s always practical and he’s always generous, and these things are always the same thing.”♦