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Podcasts Worth a Listen: ‘Fiasco,’ ‘Unwell,’ ‘In Those Genes’


As the country hurtles toward the election in November, politically minded podcasts are increasingly popping up in our feeds. Members of Congress are employing the medium as a personal soap box for their constituents. Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas (“Hold These Truths”) and Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina (“Clyburn Chronicles”) began their shows this year, and Senator Ted Cruz’s erratically released impeachment podcast (“Verdict With Ted Cruz”) briefly topped Apple Podcast’s charts. And last month it was announced that Hillary Clinton would be starting her own iHeartRadio podcast this spring.

You can also add some satirical news podcasts, with a heavy dose of politics, to your listening diet. In Late January, The Onion created an audio version of its website called “The Topical,” and the team behind the British political comedy “The Bugle” launched “The Last Post,” hosted by Alice Fraser, which brings “aah, clever” titters every morning in 16 minutes or less.

But amid all the political noise of the year, 2020 has also delivered plenty of new, creative fare that may not top the charts, but might just be your next favorite podcast. Here, along with some returning favorites, are others worth checking out.

“What’s the point of being six degrees from everyone, if all you really want is a best friend?” That’s the question eating at actor Kevin Bacon in this Spotify-exclusive fiction comedy produced by Funny or Die. In “The Last Degree,” this fictitious version of Kevin, played by the actor himself, finally finds a best friend in Randy Beslow (voiced by Matt Walsh of “Veep”). Kevin is so desperate for friendship that he’s oblivious to the fact that Randy is homicidally obsessed with him, having held a deadly grudge since he lost out on the lead role in “Footloose” to a young and rising Bacon. The show is peppered with goofy celebrity cameos, like Kyra Sedgwick (Bacon’s actual wife) as a worm enthusiast who whips out her “Closer” blazer when Randy piques her suspicions. Because it’s Funny or Die, the plot is solidly absurd — Kevin’s plan to get more friends involves securing the intellectual property rights to “Frog and Toad,” the children’s book series — and is filled with possibly every Kevin Bacon movie reference imaginable.

[Join The New York Times Podcast Club on Facebook for more recommendations and discussions about all things audio.]

Mensa, the “high I.Q. society” that accepts only those who pass a (largely disproved) intelligence test, is ripe material for the humorist Jamie Loftus in this four-part series. Using her “degree in radio production for the first time” and making liberal use of air horns, Loftus charts her journey of joining Mensa, reporting on it from the inside, then getting harassed by its online group and eventually meeting her cyberbullies in person at the organization’s annual gathering. The result is an admittedly biased, often hilarious study in the ways we treat strangers who challenge our chosen identities on the internet.

You might have heard of Jonathan Mann, or perhaps you’ve seen his YouTube channel. The singer/songwriter has been writing and recording a new song every day since Jan. 1, 2009. So after 4000 days of songs, the musician has turned to podcasting, naturally. Every episode follows the creation of a song, boiled down to about 20 minutes. Listen as Mann comes up with an idea, writes lyrics, builds a track, chooses different instruments, sings, plays and puts it all together into an ultimately satisfying bop. Mann’s true mission is to share the parts that aren’t seen in a finished artistic product: the failure, the frustrations, the constant life interruptions.

The spit-in-a-vial DNA testing trend offers a fuller understanding of your roots. But when it comes to the descendants of the African diaspora, learning your roots necessarily requires more context to fully appreciate the beauty and journey of your genome. On “In Those Genes,” Janina M. Jeff lays out the historical and future implications of genetic testing in the African-American community. The project goes beyond information-sharing; each episode makes the case to black Americans that their genome is invaluable, their genetic legacy as integral as their cultural one, and that they must become active participants in how both are handled. With “hip-hop inspired” production and illuminating guest interviews, Dr. Jeff also pushes the conversation out of the lab by exploring other forms of identity, like using names as a means to reclaim and assert one’s history. She also dispels myths surrounding genetic differences among races, like the eugenics used to justify race-based slavery. Every topic is handled thoughtfully and with intention, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining lesson in the genetic legacy of today’s black Americans.

And some returning series whose backlog is worth a binge:

The most ambitious space opera comedy is finally back in orbit, having launched its fourth season earlier this month. Created and performed by improvisers who met at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, “Mission to Zyxx” follows hapless ambassadors who alternate between working for and rebelling against the galaxy’s overlords. The core protagonists include a sentient and felonious starship who is a washed-up movie star, a lizard-bird bureaucrat, a gender- and sexually fluid security officer whose hulking body is full of chutes and flaps, a sassy know-it-all protocol and diplomatic relations droid, and an occasionally muddled hero honing his innate power (known as “The Space”). What makes the hilarious show truly outstanding audio is its obsessive editing and sound design. In the new season’s premiere, the first six minutes alone is the result of 40 ours of sound design.

Originally a Montreal radio show called “Audio Smut,” Radiotopia’s “The Heart” has been through many evolutions. Now, after a two-year break, it’s back, filled as before with queer and radically feminist stories, told with immersive and experimental sound design. Its erstwhile host, Kaitlin Prest, has handed over the reins of “The Heart” to focus on building her audio-as-art company “Mermaid Palace,” which launched a new audio drama, “Asking For It,” last month. So now “The Heart” is in the able hands of the former hosts of “bitchface” podcast, Nicole Kelly (NK) and Phoebe Unter, who introduced themselves to the audience with their first series, “Divesting From People Pleasing.” In this mini-season, NK builds a story of about her struggle to navigate the task of pleasing of white people as often the only black woman in a group. The show remains a shockingly intimate, deeply personal communication of what it means to be alive in a human body.

When Lillian Harper returns to Mt. Absalom, Ohio, to care for her ailing estranged mother, she doesn’t expect to stay long. But the family home, which happens to be the town’s boardinghouse, is full of oddball guests, unexplained phenomena and some spirits of its own, requiring her to stick around longer than she expected. To say “Unwell” is simply a horror audio drama would be giving it short shrift, since several episodes qualify as, at most, eerie. Thanks to a fabulously diverse cast of characters, many of the compelling performed episodes are better classified as goofy, romantic, funny or heart warming. But there is always something uncanny lingering at the edges. The second season just began and the show already is ramping up the horror, the conspiracy, and the urgency of this sleepy town awakening to its whitewashed, violent past.

After leaving “Slow Burn” to create content for the subscription-based listening app Luminary, the “Fiasco” team returns this month for a second season. The host, Leon Neyfakh, and his team have proved their knack for uncovering the forgotten minutiae of U.S. politics, and telling the story of political scandals through the flawed humans involved in them. Last season, it was the 2000 election. This time, it’s the Iran-contra affair, as they tell the story of a secret arms deal with Iran, in violation of U.S. policy. Some profits from the sale went to finance right-wing guerrillas fighting the government in Nicaragua. The eight-episode season zooms in on obscure characters and moments to paint a fuller picture of a convoluted bit of geopolitics that damaged the Reagan presidency.

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