#2141 | March’s To-Listen: 36 Questions – A musical revival of the podcast?

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Hey guys,

So I’m perpetually obsessed with finding new and more efficient ways to manage my time, and a big part of that is carving out time to consume content that i enjoy or that I feel enriches me creatively (see: Five ways to read more daily). And the most recent way this has manifested in my life? Podcasts.

Most podcasts are informational (I like the Freakonomics one) or funny (Weird Work), and I enjoy listening to them so much even if the subject matters have absolutely nothing to do with my life. It’s become so natural for me to tune in to a new podcast episode while getting ready in the morning or to plug in while on public transport. But very few of them have a narrative thread, and that’s something I greatly miss from radio stations in the UK – whole stations dedicated to people just reading stories to you in a comforting, grandfatherly voice.

So naturally, 36 Questions had me at three part musical podcast. It popped up in my recommended podcasts list, and I was like, are you SURE THIS IS FREE. Because how can such amazing content be free?! But the internet never ceases to amaze me.

We’ve become so conditioned to assume that content associated with high culture (art, music, etcetera) comes at a high cost – havent we all complained about Hamilton tickets being prohibitively expensive? – that i think when something similar is offered for free, it just blows our collective minds. When I was backpacking across europe I loved scouring forums for ways to get cheap tickets for musicals and plays, and it was also then that i really started being able to watch and enjoy theatre. That opportunity to really get into theatre would never have been afforded to me in Singapore because shows that travel here are mad expensive, and it’s just not within the price bracket for most people’s (semi?)regular weekend fare. I dont think there’s one easy solution for this because of the differences in cultural priorities for Singapore vs the States/Europe, but I do think that it’s a pity because it is a whole universe of joy and color and texture and magic and it comes at a cost that many people cannot afford.

That is a big part of the reason why here, especially, in the tiny island of Singapore, I appreciate what 36 questions aims to do.

The three part podcast is kind of like listening to a radio drama that occasionally breaks into song – it stars Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Glee, and Hamilton) and Jessie Shelton (theatre trained, but generally a media newcomer), and was written and directed by indie studio Two-Up. The story thread is relatively straightforward, with an interesting premise – a couple falls in love while doing the 36 questions (a psychologist-developed questionnaire that was popularised by the New York Times) and two years later, tries to fix their broken marriage by doing the 36 questions together again. There’s drama in the middle, a lot of rain, a lot of cheesiness, and also, a duck (throwback to season 4 of FRIENDS, anyone?). They often break into solos or have their dialogue phase into vocal harmony, which fires up a little frisson of delight in me whenever it happens.

There are two filmmakers who sit on the production team of 36 questions, and this works very much to the benefit of the podcast because it requires an intimate understanding of cinematic space, and subsequently how that has to be converted to an audio form without losing the lustre that comes with visual spectacle. As a result, listening to the podcast creates the sense that you’re sitting in on an intimate conversation between two people, privy to the tears, the heartbreak, the sighs, the drama, all up close. It’s a whole world carried around and transmitted to you through your headphones. And it’s extremely charming, which makes up for the dips in narrative, which does happen here and there. At some points the plot / acting becomes so cheesy I want to reach through the headphones and smack one or both of the characters, but this feeling is few and far between, and easily forgivable and glossed over by the charisma of the actors.

Overall a solid recommendation. I initially started on the series thinking it would be a great entry point to the world of musicals, but very quickly realised that it holds its own well as an entirely new musical form. You can download/stream/listen to 36 Questions here.

x
Jem

#2138 | February’s To-Watch Recommendation

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Hey-ho,

A new thing I have decided to try and do this year is to give monthly entertainment recommendations, both because I have a lot of love for television shows/ movies/ books I consume, and also in a bid to force myself into a more disciplined balanced life (with work and a decent amount of hopefully enriching media consumption). Lets see how long I stick to this, but this month, here I am with The Good Place.

I first heard of The Good Place whilst I was in LA. We were at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is a wholly mediocre theme park remedied mainly by the fact that they had an hour long ‘ride’ called The World-Famous Studio Tour, where you go on this cart and they bring you around 13 blocks of the historic studio lots (which are still being used today!) and show you the behind the scenes movie magic stuff. It’s super super cool, and when we were on the tour the guide excitedly told us to be quiet at some parts because a show was being filmed live in one of the lots. That show was The Good Place.

So when I saw the show on Netflix, I thought – eh, why not? BEST. DECISION. EVER. The show stars Kristen Bell, who I first fell in love with during her Veronica Mars era, and who later on went to act in many movies you’ve probably seen – forgetting sarah marshall, you again, bad moms, and arguably her most prolific roles – the voice of Gossip Girl and Princess Anna in Frozen. Kristen Bell is basically extremely likeable, though I think she gets pretty b-grade roles, so I’m really excited that she’s the star of such a great series again!

The premise of The Good Place is fresh – Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, wakes up in the afterlife and is told to relax, for she is finally in The Good Place. The Bad Place is for everyone who doesn’t live the absolute best and moral lives, which means all the famous philosophers and artists are there, ha ha. The heavenly architect, Michael, congratulates Eleanor on living this amazing life of community work and dedication to charity, and shows her to her new house which comes with her soul mate (matched by the heavenly computer system) attached. Welcome to perfection, she’s told. Here’s where you’re spending eternity, hope youre ready to be mega happy forever!

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Except there’s a mix up, and she’s actually a really annoying and awful person. In her words, she’s a “medium person”, someone who wasnt great but wasnt terrible either, and she deserves to go to a medium place, like Cincinnati. However, she’s out of luck – it’s either perfection or eternal damnation, and she really doesn’t want to be tortured forever. So she begs her soulmate, the pitiable but insanely endearing Chidi, who was a moral philosophy lecturer while he was alive, to teach her how to be good. Thus begins the season of her trying to earn her right to live in The Good Place and hide the fact that she’s a mistake from the rest of the neighbourhood.

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That’s basically the premise of the show. It’s created by Mike Schur, who co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which should give you a sense of how funny and smart the writing is going to be like. The show is so fresh and irreverent that it truly makes the afterlife sound ridiculously fun, and the way it ignores storytelling convention (you think the show is about one thing, but actually, its like about five zillion other things, and also, oh, we forgot the first thing already) is incredible. It has a stellar ensemble cast. And it’s just so funny.

My favourite thing about the show, though, is Janet, the Siri-like Artificial Intelligence Assistant played by the excellent D’Arcy Carden. I firmly believe that she is the best damned thing about the show, because how can any show make us feel so strongly for an artificial assistant?? I came back home and was very nice to my Google Home after that. Hey Google, will you please wake me up at eight? and all that.

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Her comic timing is great too

Janet for the win!

In an age where the sitcom genre is getting a bit repetitive, The Good Place is really a fantastically devilish intervention. And the best part? The show really holds up to a second rewatching, where new meaning is brought to the same scenes we know and love. Amazing. I 10/10 recommend this.

x
Jem