Friday, July 18, 2014

Radio Drama Review: Welcome to Nightvale

As Alex Hoffman of Sequential State said recently, while it's easy to review books and tv series which have set beginnings and endings it's much, much harder to do that with a perpetually on-going series (specifically webcomics, especially since they, like this one, start out as works of love not profit). But, since Welcome to Nightvale just had it's second anniversary I think it's only appropriate that I talk about it and explain why such an odd thing has captivated me. I started listening to it on my all-too-exciting trip to Otakon 2013 with a friend who was also curious about it and about halfway through the episode she turns to me and says that tumblr makes so much more sense now (I HAD been wondering where that "guns don't kill people, we're all immortal!" line had come from) and I must admit that now that I follow the show it's fun to see how it has been popping up everywhere in little ways. I attended one of their live shows (which was surprisingly fun for being 97% audio based!), bought a copy of "Condos" and was rather happy that they released their two year anniversary show as episodes in the main podcast (although I assume that their other ones are more-or-less canon this one certainly is). And so, this review covers them from episode 1 to episode 49, the second half of said live show, not just because that's the end of a grand arc but because episode 50 only came out this week and this show is also how I bribe myself to do my laundry ("no nightvale unless you actually iron your work shirts!") and I haven't had time to do laundry yet, how I do laundry the two weeks of the month this show isn't on is an enduring mystery.

Welcome to Nightvale

Welcome to Nightvale is an odd bird in the podcasting world, although it bills itself as such it's more or less a radio drama which, outside of the BBC, aren't that common anymore. It's also different from an audio book since the story doesn't have a single, continous story either. When the show starts off it's completely episodic, with some on-going plot threads of course (such as Carlos, the new scientist in town with his impossibly beautiful hair) but it's not until around the first year mark or so that the show starts to shift into having longer running plots pop up every few episodes or so and once they do some of them run for months upon months. This is one of the few instance where I can see why a new listener might download the latest episode to see what the show is about, instead of trying out the first one, so I could've understood if the creators had chosen to keep the show episodic even longer. However, continuously trying to be open to newcomers but not "rewarding" fans who have kept up with the work feels odd to me so I am glad for this shift, after all, if those newcomers do like the show they'll surely go back through and listen to all the old episodes, being a fan, on any level, usually means consuming as much of the franchise as you can without hassle right? (that's practically Netflix's entire business plan anyway) I will say that it took until the third episode of the show for it to grab me, that episode was much more tensely and tightly plotted than the previous two and I was a bit grumpy at first that when the fourth episode started it seemed as if everything had "reset", that the danger our radio announcer narrator (Cecil) was in had gone away, but now I wonder if that was just testing the waters for the future story arcs.

To talk a bit more about the characters, I was a bit surprised that they decided to develop Cecil as much as they have, if you listen to the first episode he sounds a bit unsure of how just detached he's supposed to be and, while it's a bit harder to take him seriously as a radio reporter with his vested interest in so many of his stories, it certainly makes him more interesting. The next "biggest" character in the show is arguably Carlos who was interesting even when, like Cecil, he wasn't fully a character yet. He's described as Latino from the outset (I have to applaud the creators to recast his voice, originally one of them did his role and then they found an actual Latino actor to do it instead since they said this was important to them) but I thought that the internet was just up to their usual shipping antics, I never expected the show to go ahead and make him and Cecil an actual gay/queer couple, considering how often I see ship-tease but nothing more it actually blew my mind! And I rather like how they're handling the romance as well, with minor squabbles and exasperation but real affection, it's nice compared to everything else I read. As the series goes on more and more characters are not only introduced but also get speaking roles and I think that by this point they have a nearly even cast of male and female speaking characters which is also quite nice. And as the show goes on they're introducing more characters and fewer, ideas is the best way to put it. In the early episodes of the show everything felt like a trope, a caricature, commentary, or just parody on an idea, one of the best improvements the show has made has been to differentiate between when to do that and when to make the people they introduce into full characters with interesting struggles. They haven't introduced any new characters in a while (disregarding their live show had the actual intern Maureen, author Maureen Johnson, speak a few lines) so I wonder if they'll bring in a new character soon....

So, other than the characters, what drew me to the show? What drew most people I think, the shows particular kind of strange, strange humor. It's not precisely dark humor and calling it dark satire isn't right either, it has elements of both but it's defining feature is just how plain strange it is. Cecil delivers nearly everything with aplomb and so sometimes I'd find myself suddenly laughing when something stranger than normal was uttered (usually when after a really odd segment he'll end with "and that was the traffic") but normally that's not the case, I might not be laughing but I'm certainly enjoying just how throughly strange Nighvale is. From angels not being real (or mountains) to miniatures civilizations underneath bowling allies attempting to invade, this kind of weirdness appeals to me hugely and when the show does veer into plain old satire (since the NRA line in the intro) it has a kind of spot-on-ness that makes you wince with how accurate it is. The show plays with it's hyper-awareness on a meta-level, when I was at the live show I was chatting with the other people in my group and we agreed it was unfair that the show could be so weird and yet manage to have odd messages that really hit close to home. And sure enough, come the last few minutes of the show and Cecil had a few lines about life and living that, while phrased oddly, feel so much more relevant to my life than any of the "quotes of the day" my managers insist on putting on our daily schedules.

For those who haven't yet to succumbed to Nightvale, or who have recently escaped from Desert Bluffs, the show can be listened to for free, without any region restrictions that I know of, on itunes (and other podcast apps as well) and you can find more information about the show in general on their website. Goodnight dear readers, goodnight. 

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