The Chernobyl Podcast & the value of internet deep dives (Cybercultural 6-12-2019)

In this digital era of tv and movies, the experience extends beyond your television screen.

I’ve just finished watching the HBO-Sky miniseries, Chernobyl. It was by far the best new tv series I’ve seen all year - a horrifying true story told in a masterful way by its writer, director, and actors.

About midway through binging the five episodes, I discovered there was a companion podcast. It’s hosted by NPR’s Peter Sagal and features Craig Mazin, the show’s creator, sole writer and executive producer. There are five podcast episodes in total, each one about 45 minutes long and dedicated to a specific tv episode.

Listening to The Chernobyl Podcast reminded me that in the digital era of entertainment, enjoying a favorite tv show or movie is about much more than simply watching it. Sometimes there are companion pieces, such as an official podcast, website or book.

Even more often, there are unofficial media that both complement the show and add to the experience of it. A couple of my recent favourites include Entertainment Weekly’s awesome podcast about Twin Peaks and the A.V. Club’s website reviews of Mr Robot. I’ll discuss both, plus some other examples, below. But first let’s get back to Chernobyl…

The extra layers a podcast deep dive reveals

I found The Chernobyl Podcast to be almost as as compelling and binge-worthy as the tv show. The creator and writer, Mazin, does most of the talking in the podcast. I learned many interesting background details from him, about both the production of the show and the Chernobyl disaster itself. As for Sagal, he does a sterling job as host - making sure to hit all the main talking points and adding his own interpretations and theories.

It was particularly intriguing to hear how Mazin adapted the true story of Chernobyl into a tv series, including revealing which characters and plot points were invented or changed for dramatic purposes.

But even more than the script notes and production details, the podcast did an excellent deep dive into the cultural reasons why the tv show was created. At about the 3-minute mark of episode one of the podcast, Mazin explains how the Western media view of Chernobyl at the time it happened was lacking in depth of understanding:

“What we did not get on our side of the news was how […] this could've only happened in the Soviet Union. Only the Soviet Union could've solved this problem. What the Soviet citizenry did to sacrifice and solve was nothing short of remarkable. And we in the West, I don't think had any sense of how multi-layered this disaster was; and how, in many ways, the explosion was really just the beginning of a series of events that are increasingly hard to believe.”

Of course, the tv show itself goes further - it shows what happened. Which is much more powerful than saying it on a podcast. Showing not telling is perhaps the number one rule in writing narrative, whether it’s a tv show or a book.

But the ‘tell’ can be a very useful complement to the ‘show’ - and that’s where the value of podcasts shines through. The Chernobyl Podcast helped me to more deeply understand what I had just watched; and even made me want to binge the tv series a second time.

Unofficial media can critique as well as dive

One of the potential drawbacks of an official podcast companion piece to a tv show is that it isn’t likely to challenge the show’s creators. Certainly the host of The Chernobyl Podcast, Peter Sagal, does not criticise any aspect of the show. He doesn’t even really challenge any of the creative decisions Mazin made. The most pointed question he asked was, “did that really happen?” (and because many of the facts of Chernobyl are stranger than fiction, he had to ask that multiple times).

I’m not saying Sagal should’ve played ‘bad cop’ on the podcast and asked more challenging questions to Mazin. That would’ve risked sidetracking the conversation and Mazin may’ve become argumentative in response. That isn’t the point of an official companion piece podcast. Mostly we expect (and indeed get, in this podcast) detailed behind-the-scenes information about the creation of the show. Which is more than enough.

That said, this is why I sometimes enjoy unofficial podcasts and web reviews of tv shows and movies more - when they’re done well.

The terribly named but terrifically entertaining A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks is a case in point. This 2017 podcast was hosted by Jeff Jensen and Darren Franich, both at the time tv critics for Entertainment Weekly (Jensen left EW in 2018). The podcast ran from March 2017, when it was announced that Twin Peaks was coming back to tv after a hiatus of over 25 years, to December 2017 (the podcast briefly returned in August 2018, for one extra episode).

Twin Peaks: The Return ran for 18 episodes from May-September 2017. After each highly anticipated episode was broadcast on tv, Jensen and Franich would do a deep dive. Twin Peaks has a storied history as a tv franchise and has inspired hundreds of fan websites, books and even magazines since it first aired in the early 1990s. So when the EW podcast began examining the new Twin Peaks series in May 2017, most of the fun as a listener was in hearing the pair try to unravel the plot and theorise how it connected to the existing Twin Peaks universe.

As well as being endearingly nerdy and frequently funny in their Twin Peaks deep dives, Jensen and Franich weren’t afraid to occasionally criticise The Master (co-writer and director David Lynch). For episode 12, Jensen wrote in his accompanying blog post that it was “a peculiar affair of drawn-out moods that played to me like Lynch indulging himself in various ways.” He rated it a B- and the podcast discussion with Franich reflected that.

Don’t forget old school website reviews

It’s not just podcasts that do deep dives on tv shows and movies. The A.V. Club is an entire website devoted to this form of media commentary. It’s been around since the mid-90s, alongside its sister publication The Onion (both are owned by Onion, Inc). I particularly enjoyed The A.V. Club’s coverage of the tv series Mr Robot; like Twin Peaks a series that lends itself to plot theorizing and speculation about the motivations of its characters.

What’s fun about unofficial deep divers is that their world view can be quite different from the show’s creators. In her review of the third season finale in December 2017, Alex McLevy writes this overly serious yet also insightful character analysis:

“That internal struggle is just the most overt manifestation of a battle every character is going through, as are we all. Everyone lives with the contradictions within ourselves, and when we do something wrong—when we give birth to that regret I mentioned above—it’s up to us not only to make it right, but to make peace with ourselves for the wrong we’ve done, and grow from the experience. No one encounters this problem more starkly than Angela.”

Whether or not you agree with that rather earnest take on one of Mr Robot’s lead characters, it at least takes you out of your sofa slumber and makes you think more about the tv show you just watched. Also, McLevy’s writeup received over 100 comments. So plenty of people jumped in to add their thoughts, adding a community feel to this particular deep dive.

In conclusion, the best deep dives - whether in podcast or blog format - add to the experience of watching a tv show or movie in 2019. It becomes more than just a tv show to binge on Netflix and then forget about; it’s now something to think through and perhaps talk about with other people.

The Chernobyl Podcast is one of the first podcast deep dives I’ve come across in an official capacity - that is, the show’s creator taking us through the show episode by episode. I hope we see more of that, although I’ll still look out for the best unofficial deep divers too.

Tracking 👀

  • Mainstream TV in Russia is heavily controlled by the government, but dissenting voices are regularly heard on YouTube. 📺

  • Radiohead got hacked and asked to pay a ransom, but they set the karma police onto the thief; the stolen files are now available online for anyone to listen to and purchase. 🎸

  • Subscriptions come to podcasting with a new Seattle company called Glow; e.g. popular tech podcast Techmeme Ride Home is charging $5 per month for an ad-free experience. 🎧

  • Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group has acquired startup news app Zig, which offers an Instagram-style scrolling feed of photos that link to news sites. 📱

  • It’s not only tv shows that come with extras nowadays; about half the 39 titles that topped the Billboard charts last year were sold as part of ticket or merchandise bundles. 🎹

Data Points 📊

  • Mary Meeker’s annual state of the internet report; always a must-read and as usual packed with data and trends. 🗄️

  • Factoid from Meeker’s report: more than half of Twitter impressions involve images, video or other media. 📷

  • At the Code Conference, Facebook VP of AR/VR Andrew Bosworth says the Oculus Quest has had $5M in content sales in its first two weeks on the market. 💰

Tweet of the Day

If you want to go down the Chernobyl internet rabbit hole, check out this thread from its creator:

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