Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Podcast's the Thing Wherein I'll Catch a Laugh ... (Part 1)

As I've mentioned before, I absolutely love Paget Brewster as an actor. So much so in fact that I follow her account on Twitter because she posts funny and random things and just generally sounds so down to earth. Frequently, she would mention on Twitter a podcast that she participates in, and I wouldn't even bother to click on the link because I had given up on podcasts years earlier. (When I first got an Ipod, I was obsessed with the idea of podcasts and downloaded so many different ones, including a great too many news ones that released an episode every day, that I soon became overwhelmed with the number of unheard episodes I'd have queuing up at any given moment. So then rather than being a reasonable person who weeded out only some of the podcasts I was subscribed to, I simply deleted them all.) Eventually though, repeatedly seeing Brewster make reference to her role in the podcast compelled me to finally check out the premise of this particular podcast. When I found out that the podcast in question was The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a self-declared "new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio," I knew I'd have to check it out. Having spent a great deal of time with my grandparents when I was growing up, I had developed a love for classic movies, old-time crooners, and even Golden Age radio programs. The Thrilling Adventure Hour started as a staged reading out in Los Angeles and was eventually recorded to be shared with a listening audience throughout the country (perhaps even world?).

From that point on, I downloaded all the old episodes of The Thrilling Adventure Hour and would listen to them while doing all kinds of mundane tasks - usually housework like laundry or dishes. It's amazing how much faster and cheerfully these tedious tasks go when you're listening to something that grips your imagination and makes you laugh. The episodes are generally fairly short (about 20-30 minutes on average, with some exceptions) and come out with just the right frequency so that you are neither up to your elbows in backlog nor sitting around waiting impatiently for the next one to arrive. The monthly staged show is roughly one hour (hence the name) with three segments and some interstitial materials including advertisements for made-up products (WorkJuice Brand Coffee and Patriot Cigarettes, with the former eventually becoming an actual product). The podcast breaks each of the three segments down into its own episode, releasing them one at a time. (In the past, it occasionally had separate very brief episodes for the interstitials as well but those have not surfaced in quite some time.) The staged show always opens with the segment "Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars" and ends with the program "Beyond Belief." The middle show changes from month to month, although there is a limited universe of available choices at the moment (of course, the writers could keep on inventing new programs, or spin-offs of the other segments, to fill this time slot). Lately, podcast episodes have also included behind-the-scenes interviews with the show's writers, creative team, and actors as well as an ongoing Q&A session with two of the actors.

The show is written monthly by television writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (writers of the show Supernatural, amongst other things) with other members of the creative team including a director, composer, and live orchestra. The staged show is performed by a standard cast known as the WorkJuice Players (who all play a set role in one or two segments as well as guest spots on other segments) in addition to a variety of guest stars (some recurring). The Thrilling Adventure Hour attracts incredible talent, many of whom are well-known television actors. As the show has gotten increasingly popular, the guests have become bigger "names" in the business. The Thrilling Adventure Hour has become so popular that it's branched out to other media, including a graphic novel that tells the further stories of the characters introduced in the staged show/podcast. In this blog entry, I'd like to talk a little bit further about the main two segments of the show, "Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars" and "Beyond Belief." In a follow-up post, I will explore the other programs as well.

Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars

"Sparks Nevada" is a segment that is basically a Western-themed space opera. As the name implies, it takes place on Mars, where for some reason Earthling Sparks Nevada has been put in charge of all law enforcement. His deputy-of-sorts is a Martian named Croach the Tracker who feels he must re-pay his debt of onus to Nevada (with the onus constantly being added to or subtracted from in a balance that only Croach maintains). Each episode sees Sparks and Croach battling some new enemy of sorts, whether a literal attack by robots or something more metaphysical such as Nevada's depression when the woman he loves chooses someone else over him. "Sparks Nevada" is the most serialized of all the segments on The Thrilling Adventure Hour; therefore, this is the one that is best to start with from the beginning rather than trying to jump in now and hope to catch on to all the character arcs and in-jokes.

One of the funniest things about "Sparks Nevada" is the interaction between Sparks and Croach. Sparks is more of a "go with your guts" kind of guy while Croach tries to rationalize and reason through everything. Both have hilarious speech patterns with Sparks spluttering along and Croach coming across rather stilted. As I mentioned, there are numerous in-jokes, including oft-repeated lines and variations of them - for example, Nevada's famous catchphrase "I'm from ... Earth" and Croach constantly explaining Martian things to Sparks with "which you designate [insert English word here]." But as Marc Evan Jackson, the voice talent behind Sparks Nevada, noted in a recent Q&A session about the show, the characters in this show are more than they seem - and they are certainly growing. Jackson pointed this out particularly in the context of Croach, who can seem rather robotic, especially when the show first began, but who has come to developing a wider range of emotions.

However, the "Sparks Nevada" universe is more than just these two characters. There is a host of interesting recurring characters, including the Barkeep (who doesn't want trouble in his place), the artificial intelligence that operates Barkeep's space saloon (and does a lot of thinking on her own), Felton (an everyday citizen who is like the hypochondriac of trouble: he thinks it's there no matter what), the Red Plains Rider (potential love interest of both Sparks and Croach as well as a gunslinger in her own right), Cactoid Jim (a helpful and handsome vigilante; Sparks is often as jealous of Jim as he is grateful to him), Pemilly Stalwark (winner of the Earth's Moon's punishment soccer tournament, a riff on the very popular series The Hunger Games), Rebecca Rose Rushmore (an author of universal acclaim), not to mention all the outlaws that Nevada comes across as a matter of routine in his professional life. These outlaws and the hijinks that they cause add to the hilarity of the show; for instance, the mere entrance of Los Banditos Mutantes causes a ripple of laughter to ensue. The show is a good mix of hilarious situations caused via Nevada's work and those created by the issues in his social life. One of the funniest - and most touching - episodes of all combines both perfectly, in a musical format to boot.

Another thing that I appreciate about this program is that while Westerns as a genre (and to a lesser extent, science fiction as well) tend to be light on female characters, let alone ones that are more than just "damsels in distress" stereotypes, that is not the case here. "Sparks Nevada" may have more men than women on the show, but the female characters that are present are strong and independent. Red is a feisty character with her wits about her who seems to be faster at taking out the bad guys than Nevada is. Of course, the downside is every once in a while due to the fast pace of the show and the need to always create new tensions, Red can sometimes seem a little wishy-washy with her affections - she loves Nevada, she loves Croach, she loves Nevada, she loves Jim, she loves Nevada, she loves Jim. Sometimes it gets hard to remember from episode to episode where her affections lie. Pemilly Stalwak, as the character inspired by The Hunger Games's tough-as-nails protagonist Katniss Everdeen, is a complicated character who is physically tough and learning to become emotionally strong. Rebecca Rose Rushmore is the most stereotypical relationship-hungry woman, but she also has a steady backbone as well as a successful career of her own.

"Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars" is the story that started the whole production and is one of the most popular segments on the show. For that reason, the segment has spawned various spin-offs, including "Cactoid Jim, King of the Martian Frontier" about the further adventures of Cactoid Jim sans Nevada and crew, "Tales of the United Solar System Alliance" about a spaceship crew navigating the same universe and occasionally crossing into a "Sparks Nevada" episode, and most recently a segment featuring the Red Plains Rider in a solo adventure. As the show and the podcast both continue, no doubt we will see (read: hear) more growth in the characters populating the "Sparks Nevada" universe, other ridiculous antics, and perhaps additional spin-offs from the first thrilling adventure of the hour.

Beyond Belief

The Thrilling Adventure Hour always concludes with an episode of "Beyond Belief," which the creators refer to as a supernatural Nick and Nora. This segment's protagonists are the married couple Frank and Sadie Doyle, who'd gladly do nothing more than spend all their time locked up together in their Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment tossing back drink after drink. Sadly for the Doyles (but luckily for us), all manner of supernatural creatures have a knack for finding their way into Frank and Sadie's life. It probably doesn't help that Sadie's best friend is a vampire married to a werewolf and than Frank spent at least some of his orphaned childhood growing up in a church full of exorcists. Still, the Doyles have managed to encountered all types of unpleasant monsters and weird situations even when they don't bother to leave their apartment at all. Evil seeks them out. As the show continues, the "Beyond Belief" monsters have segued from ones we've all heard of such as vampires, genies, and so on to more obscure ones like a possessed gingerbread man, a Pinocchio-inspired boy trying to convince Frank and Sadie that they are his parents, etc. The show is never frightening though (nor is it meant to be) and despite usually being drunk at the time, the Doyles always manage to know exactly what to do in any given situation to eliminate the threat. They do this all while swigging back yet another drink ("clink!" being their catchphrase) and swapping turns on supplying the snappy sarcastic one-liners. The Doyles, especially Frank, also have a habit of lamenting about their desire to be alone with one another rather than actually being worried about the impending threat of whatever latest monster(s) they are facing.

Like with "Sparks Nevada," one of the most compelling things about "Beyond Belief" is the relationship between the two leads. The Doyles' love for each other and complete antipathy for just about everyone else they encounter would be horrible if you met them in real life, but here it's comedy gold. Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster shine in the roles of Frank and Sadie Doyle, and their accents for these two characters are some of the most fun ones on The Thrilling Adventure. Unlike in "Sparks Nevada," these two characters are basically static and you could jump in on any random episode and probably not be missing much. (There are, however, a few episodes that make reference to an earlier one in an important way, such as the recent "Basil's Day" one.) Nevertheless, the characters and their witty repartee (not to mention whatever antics will occur with their latest nemesis) make the show interesting and compelling enough that I actually prefer this one to "Sparks Nevada" (indeed, it's my favorite segment of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, hands down). And while Frank and Sadie don't really change over the life of the show/podcast, that doesn't mean they are always the same from episode to episode. Over time, we learn more about their past lives, their friends, and their few hobbies outside of imbibing alcohol nonstop. Each episode brings a fresh new adventure full of laughs so even without a serialized nature for this segment, I still can't wait for the next one to show up in my queue. "Beyond Belief" is certainly the perfect nightcap to conclude The Thrilling Adventure Hour.

That's all for this post, readers. Stay tuned for part 2, in which I'll discuss the other segments found in The Thrilling Adventure Hour.

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