With the holidays approaching, ‘tis the season of long car rides to visit family in exotic locales like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
The noble podcast is here to help. Long trips are the perfect environment for checking out new shows or catching up on old favorites.
In this edition of Podcast Picks, we recommend some recent releases, new season collections from some old favorites, and three terrific podcasts for hopeless history nerds.
‘Serial: Season Three’
“Serial,” from NPR’s “This American Life,” is probably the planet’s most famous podcast, combining tireless investigative reporting with captivating storytelling. Creator and host Sarah Koenig is so good at what she does, it feels like she was genetically designed for this work.
Season Three breaks from previous collections by focusing in on one specific location: the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Rather than tell one story, Koenig and co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi bounce through dozens of tales of justice gone wrong, gone sideways or just gone crazy. The team’s reporting is fair but tough, and there are details here which will infuriate any American citizen with even a passing interest in social justice.
Starter Episode: It’s best to listen to the series in sequence, but if you’re in the market for instant outrage, try Episode Six on the utterly broken police department of East Cleveland.
‘The Bowery Boys: New York City History’
For more than a decade, The Bowery Boys – amateur historians Tom Meyers and Greg Young – have been excavating yesteryear stories of the Big Apple. The format is basic and familiar: Two guys research a topic, then talk for an hour or so, every other week.
The difference is simple efficiency. Banter is minimal, and each episode is thoroughly researched and tightly focused. It’s clear that Meyers and Young put a tremendous amount of work into each show. In fact, they often burrow into the endless stacks at the New York Public Library to access primary sources. Topics bounce through the entire history of the city, from the city’s roots in Native American communities through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to today’s headlines.
Starter Episode: Browse the generous archives – 275 shows and counting – and see what catches your eye: Coney Island, the Chelsea Hotel, the Great Fire of 1776. Episode 88, on Ellis Island, is a good representative episode.
Fans of the venerable podcast franchise “Stuff You Should Know” may already be familiar with this one. It’s a spin-off project from SYSK co-host Chuck Bryant dedicated to his various movie nerd obsessions.
Each week, Bryant sits down with an invited quest – often a comedian or fellow podcast celebrity – and digs into one particular film. You might get comic John Hodgman talking about “The Avengers,” or podcaster Aaron Mahnke (“Lore”) on “The Village.” The vibe is loose and funny, but Bryant keeps conversation on the rails by preparing topics for each individual film. He really does love movies deeply, and it shows.
Starter Episode: Dig back to June 14, 2018, for a killer conversation on “The Silence of the Lambs” with the hosts of the blockbuster podcast “My Favorite Murder.” Perfect match, really.
‘Revisionist History: Season Three’
Writer Malcolm’s Gladwell’s foray into podcasting has been one of the very best things to happen to the format. Gladwell, a master storyteller, can make the phone book interesting, and he’s got a top-flight production here from the podcast network Panoply. Like “Serial” and other blue chip podcasts, Gladwell’s series airs in season collections. Season Three dropped last summer.
Gladwell’s general strategy with the series is to tackle historical topics that he believes have been overlooked or misunderstood. The series slogan: “Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” But what he’s really doing is chasing down his own random obsessions. Season Three includes meditations on Elvis Costello, immigration policy and the nature of memory. Gladwell is so impossibly smart and interesting that he makes us all feel smart and interesting. It’s a public service, really.
Starter Episode: Again, it’s better to listen in sequence. There are a lot of callbacks in the various narratives. But sports fans may want to start with Episode 3, concerning Wilt Chamberlain and the science of free throws.
‘Intrigue: The Ratline’
“Intrigue,” a fascinating series from Britain that has mostly flown under the radar on this side of the pond, is worth tracking down. Produced as a 10-part serial narrative from BBC Radio 4, “Intrigue” tells the story of Nazi official Otto von Wachter, a senior administrator who disappeared after the war. In the process, we learn about the World War II “ratlines” – the escape routes used by Nazis to flee Europe when the Third Reich fell.
But series creator Philippe Sands has a more personal story to tell. Sands lost family in the Holocaust, and he’s developed a friendship with von Wachter’s son Horst, now a lonely old man who desperately wants to believe that his own father was not a mass murderer. Was Otto a Nazi kingpin or just a duped and innocent administrator? Flashback sequences feature voiceover work from Stephen Fry and Laura Linney.
Starter Episode: You’ll want to start at the beginning, of course, but don’t worry. “Intrigue” is such a gripping story that you’ll be downloading the other nine episodes before you finish the first.