Review: Uncanny Valley

(Originally posted November 11, 2018)

Genre: Anthology, story telling, paranormal, horror
Possible Triggers: N/A
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG

You’re riding alone on a moonlit, but starless night. You just missed your exit, and now there’s only one way back home. So sit back, open your ears and hold on tight, because you’re about to take a quick detour—through Uncanny County…

General:
Un·can·ny – strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.

We all know the saying “this one didn’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley.” Uncanny County takes that one step further.

Imagine you’re a simple man, living a simple life, in a simple small town. You have yourself a nice sweetheart who you want to marry, but she’s so busy with her helper robots who are running the town. You start to suspect she might be cheating. One thing leads to another, and you discover that the entire town population is robots, your girlfriend is a robot, and they’re all being controlled by the human version of your girlfriend, who turned you into a robot after you were in a fatal accident twenty-five years earlier. And this isn’t the first time you’ve discovered this.

Welcome to Uncanny County.

This podcast is an anthology of seemingly unrelated stories that all have one definitive thing in common – they’re all a little strange and a lot wtf. There are small threads woven through the stories that bring them together (namely a sheriff and her deputy who keeps dying on his first day), hinting at a larger story line in an almost infuriating manner. It’s certainly enough to make you keep hitting the “next” button.

If you suffer from a second-hand embarrassment squick, the first few episodes can be a little uncomfortable. The voice actors almost overact their parts, laying things on thick – the small town atmosphere is too heavy, the nervous flirting between a man and a woman makes you cringe, the southern charm is laid on thick, and there are times where you have to hit pause and collect yourself before going back to see what shudder-worthy thing is being said.

And then you realize that’s deliberate. They’re trying to unsettle you, they’re trying to put you off, they want you to feel uncomfortable. They want you to feel exactly what the main character is feeling.

The first episode, for example, with the man who didn’t know he was a robot (no, I didn’t make that up, that’s a real episode), would have been a completely different if handled by another podcast. It could have been something truly terrifying, or truly hilarious, but instead of going one way or the other, Uncanny County made it both. It’s cringe-y, it’s funny, it’s scary, and in a weird way it’s heartwarming all at the same time. There aren’t many shows that pull off all of that in one episode.

It all adds to the charm of the show. One would almost call it uncanny. The point of it all is to unsettle you and put you on edge, not just through the story that’s being told, but by changing the way it’s told to you. It makes you feel uncomfortable and worried, and it puts you in the role of the central character, who, like you, has no idea what’s going on or how to deal with it. The worst part of it all? There’s nothing you can do to control the narrative. You’re just a passenger watching all of it unfold. And you’re almost certainly heading for a train wreck which has a twisted but happy(?) ending. The citizens of Uncanny County aren’t always the luckiest people, but they get what they’re due in the end – if not in a slightly different way than they might have imagined.

Maybe don’t book a vacation there, though. And never go to a clown hotel. Or the car wash/lawyer’s office. Or- yeah, don’t book a vacation there.

The writing of Uncanny County is undeniably stellar, and while the way the stories are told can certainly make you feel awkward, enough binge listening will get you passed that and eagerly on to the next episode. Whatever you feel, you have to give the writers and voice actors credit – they’re doing their jobs well here.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes
Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.
Length: 20-30 minutes

Overall: While Uncanny County isn’t necessarily unique in its premise (a strange place where strange things happen and no one questions them), the way the stories are told certainly is. There are plenty of horror podcasts out there, and plenty of humorous ones, but podcasts that try and succeed to be both are a rare treat. And there’s an added bonus if awkward, overdone characters are hilarious to you. For the rest of us? It’s gets easier, I promise.

Rating: 4/5

Review: The Black Tapes

(Originally posted October 7, 2018)

Genre: Investigative journalism, paranormal, supernatural, docudrama
Possible Triggers: No
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

Do you believe?

General: The Black Tapes is hosted by Alex Reagan, a journalist is sets out with the original goal of meeting people with paranormal stories and interviewing them about their experiences. This goal is immediately (within the first episode) derailed when Alex meets Dr. Richard Strand, a stubborn, cynic non-believer and head of The Strand Institute. His disbelief goes so deep, he’s even offered a one million dollar reward to anyone who can prove the existence of the paranormal.

Unsurprisingly, the reward has never been claimed.

And that’s not for a lack of trying. Thousands of people have sent in what they consider proof, only to have it all debunked by The Strand Institute.

Well, almost all of it.

During her meeting with Dr. Strand, Alex almost immediately zeroes in on a collection of tapes, which Dr. Strand reluctantly admits are tapes that they haven’t managed to debunk “yet.”

Alex’s intention is immediately enraptured by the tapes (known as the black tapes), and convinces Strand to let her watch one.

And it’s all down the rabbit hole from there. Alex becomes obsessed with the black tapes, forgetting her original goal, and begins investigating the tapes herself. The investigation sends her down a path of conspiracies, lies, and the possible coming of the apocalypse.

And from here it goes down the predictable path. The neutral journalist (who really isn’t that neutral) and the skeptic set out to investigate the tapes and seeming connections between them, and how they somehow connect to Dr. Strand and the end of the world.

You know, the normal stuff.

The Black Tapes has a truly interesting, if not somewhat convoluted story line. With disappearing people and mysterious music with a note that might signal the end of humanity and how it all connects to Dr. Strand and his past. It’s definitely a podcast you need to give your full attention – multitasking while listening is not recommended.

The voice acting can be a little hokey at times, but overall the characters are very well done. Alex and Dr. Strand develop a sort of love-hate relationship (in that Dr. Strand constantly says he’s done helping Alex yet always ends up coming back to her), and their back and forth with one another is highly entertaining. Whether you ship them romantically or just think they have a fantastic friendship, it’s hard not to love every minute these two are on the proverbial screen together.

We also learn, as the series goes on, that Alex may not be the reliable narrator she first appears to be. The investigation into the black tapes is taking its toll on her mental state, to the point where her producer has to force her to take time off and away from everything. She’s not sleeping, having odd dreams when she does sleep, and is crossing lines of journalistic integrity to get what she wants – all major red flags that she’s not a narrator we can necessarily trust.

She’s the only point of view we have, however, whether we can trust her or not. It’s her journey and her story we’re following as we dive deeper into the unknown.

Dr. Strand’s stubborn insistence that “everything can be explained” can get a little frustrating, especially in the face of all the things he can not, in fact, explain. His stance can become a little infuriating after a while, to the point where you want to reach into the podcast, grab him by the shoulders, and tell him to stop being so damn thick.

On the other hand, his beliefs are what seem to keep Alex grounded – her ideas start getting too fantastical or out of the control, and he’s there to keep her in reality. Conversely, Alex adds a little levity to situations when Dr. Strand starts getting too uptight. He doesn’t necessarily listen to or even believe her, but she has a knack for diffusing situations that are starting to get too tense.

The show has ended, which is both a little disappointing (if you want new episodes) but also good new listeners who want something quick, spooky, and detailed without having to wait for new episodes. It’s easily bingeable, with twelve episodes in seasons one and two and six episodes in season three, and if you enjoy the writing style, never fear – the creators of the show, Pacific Northwest Stories and minnow beats whale – have more paranormal mystery and wonders to offer. When you’re done listening to The Black Tapes, you can check out more of their work at:

Pacific Northwest Stories
minnow beats whale

LGBTQIA Friendly?: N/A

Pay to Listen?: No, but they accept donations.

Length: 10-20 minutes

Overall: Whether you believe or not, The Black Tapes is a fascinating listen. It’s an interesting blend of how the real world meets the supernatural, and how humans react when faced with the possibility that what they view as reality is only the surface. The twists and turns are a little bewildering at times, but it’s worth a listen if you like listening to people debate the paranormal. Dr. Strand and Alex Reagan represents two sides of the paranormal believer spectrum – the staunch non-believer and the open-minded, almost naive neutral party who accidentally falls out of objectivity and deeper into the side of believing, and further from the reality she’s always known.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing an alternate reality of this podcast where Alex sticks to her original goal of setting out to find stories from other people. I’d listen to that in a heartbeat.

Review: The Bridge

(September 8, 2018)

Genre: Radio Broadcast, Supernatural, Paranormal, alternate timelines
Possible Triggers: None
Safe For Work: Yes
Content: PG-13

You’re listening to: The Bridge.

General: In an alternate 2016, a lonely lighthouse called Watchtower 10 looms over the largely abandoned Transcontinental Bridge. It’s the world’s largest bridge, spanning the entire Atlantic and connecting the Americas and Europe. The watchtowers broadcast regular traffic reports to the non-existent drivers on the bridge, but of course, it would be boring if that’s all they did, wouldn’t it?

The traffic reports from Watchtower 10 are given by Henrietta “Etta” Perault, who hates traffic reports and likes adding a little spice to her broadcasts by telling stories about the Bridge and its past (much to the annoyance of her supervisor). Etta is a quick-witted, sarcastic, hates it when anyone messes with her broadcasting equipment, and (appropriately, as the narrator of a supernatural podcast) has a dark past she’s kept hidden from her fellow crew members.

This colorful cast includes Robert Kaplan the supervisor, a man with seemingly no sense of humor who lost a bet and ended up at Watchtower 10; Kate Burnham, the resident travel agent with a secret of her own; and Bertie Renard, the groundskeeper who just wants to keep an eye on his flowers and make sure everything and everyone is safe. Like Etta, they all have their secrets, though some are more willing to talk than others.

Not on the payroll of Watchtower 10 (do they even get paid? Who’s running all this?) is a Lovecraftian monster housed within the lighthouse, fondly named Bob. Creatures like Bob are kept within all the watchtowers, as well as prowling the Atlantic Ocean (and sometimes taking abandoned cars off the bridge; Etta enjoys narrating those moments).

There’s a lot going on to keep you interested. The history of the Bridge is given away in bits and pieces, usually by Etta when she thinks she can get away with it. But the rest of the crew members have their own points of view to contribute as well.

Aside from the monsters dwelling within each watchtower and in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bridge itself has seen its fair share of non-monster related paranormal horror – including a ride at the famous Aqua Land which collapsed and killed dozens of people for no reason anyone can tell, and a hotel where a private party was being hosted one night, and every single adult within the walls of the hotel disappeared. Every year since, an item from one of the lost people appears for their loved ones to come and collect.

The crew members of Watchtower 10 are an absolute joy. They love each other, they hate each other, but no matter what happens, they’re all in this crazy adventure together (for better or worse). Even Robert, stuck-up and unlikable as he is, is portrayed in a way where you can’t really hate him. He’s boring and no fun, for sure, but his attitude and dry wit are delightful, and sometimes he even tells a joke – sort of. Bertie is a beacon of innocent light, and you have to wonder how such a pure being ended up in the middle of such a messed up situation. Kate is flirtatious, confident, and not afraid to take charge when the others are just being stupid.

The banter between the crew members is always fun, and never fails to add something more to the story. The first episode is a perfect example of that – Bertie and Etta are talking, and keep interrupting each other with more sarcastic banter before anyone can actually saywhat’s down on Submare 3 and why Bertie had to go check on it. Roger, in one exasperated line, can reveal more about Etta than we learn in most episodes – she’s flighty, she needs her job description read to her at least once a week, she hates giving the traffic reports and doing her actual job, she loves telling stories to whatever audience might be listening (she’s pretty sure it’s mostly just Frank, a cranky man who calls in daily to inform Etta that she got yet another fact about the Bridge wrong). Kate’s playful exchanges with the rest of the crew show she’s not allergic to a little fun, but she knows when it’s time to stop fooling around and get serious.

In the first episode, we learn so much about these characters, and we’re still left with a million questions – what’s on Submare 3? Are these stories Etta is telling really true, or are we dealing with a serious case of unreliable narrator? How did these four polar opposite people end up working together? What brought any of them to Watchtower 10? What’s the story behind this Aqua Land? What happened at the Transcontinental Hotel at Checkpoint 8? Why is the Bridge – which was supposed to be the crowning achievement of humanity – abandoned and left in disrepair while these characters watch it crumble? Are the other watchtowers still in use? Does the crew of Watchtower 10 even know the answer to that?

There are points where the show gets a little too wrapped up in its own mystery, and if you check out for a minute you’ll come back lost and confused (although you may have already been feeling that way), but the writing is mostly on-point, the characters are well voiced and a delight, and there’s still plenty of mysteries to unravel and keep you listening for a long time.

Beginner Friendly?: Some experience with podcasts of similar genres might be helpful for keeping up with the fast pace. Definitely start at the beginning, or you’ll be lost from the get-go.

LGBTQIA Friendly?: Yes

Pay to Listen?: No, but like most they accept donations

Length: 10-20 minutes.

Overall: The Bridge is certainly an enjoyable listen. The short episodes leave you wanting more, and continuing to hit the next episode until you realize you’ve hit the end of the season (new episodes are starting in October, however, never fear). The show gives away just enough to give you context, but keeps enough hidden so that you’ll keep listening, wanting to unravel the secrets of Etta, the crew, the Bridge, and all the lore and mysteries which surround it.

Rating: 4.5/5