Escape with these five non-fiction podcast miniseries and give your brain a break from the endless Trump/Brexit/Covid-19/climate crisis/economic collapse new cycle.
There is so much once-in-a-generation news happening right now, that we simply cannot take any more onboard. Between Brexit, the most divisive US Presidential election in modern history, the impending doom of the climate crisis, a pandemic and a second global economic crisis in less than 15 years, we’ve hit capacity on the news.
It is important to stay informed but it's also important to stay healthy. My mother, who only ever turns on the TV to watch the news, a well-reviewed film she read about in the paper or Monty Don, is now waist-deep in season four of Gilmore Girls. So whether your stay-sane pleasure is rom-coms, disappearing into a novel or just having Spice Girls on shuffle at every waking moment, escapism is no bad thing right now.
I’ve found comfort in podcast miniseries for three main reasons. The first is that they tend not to cover any of the Big Five news topics over and over again as many of my usual go-tos do – it’s not their fault, there is absolutely nothing else to talk about and there are just enough plot twists to make them all seem newsworthy every week.
The second is that they have a definitive endpoint. Which means that you either know how it ends from the very beginning or you will find out how it ends it a short amount of time. You will be provided with all the information you need to understand the topic and reach your own, educated conclusion. Again, unlike the Big Five – masks are good, masks are bad, pubs can open, we’re going to Level 5 etc etc.
And finally, the topic has almost no bearing on the current reality. While these are all non-fiction and so have some bearing on life, none of them end with “and that is why Covid-19 became a pandemic / Trump was elected / the British public voted for Brexit”. Which is exactly what I'm looking for.
Here's what I have listened to and enjoyed so far...
Still probably one of the best investigative journalist podcast miniseries and the standard-bearer for all that has come after it, S-Town is a meandering but engrossing look at one man’s life through the lens of his hometown in Alabama.
It’s almost impossible to synopsise this one but if you haven’t listened to it yet, S-Town is ground zero for this type of podcast.
Slow Burn: Season 3
All four seasons of Slow Burn are really great but I’ve selected season four as it is the only season that doesn’t revolve around a US Presidential candidate or scandal (season one is Watergate, season two is Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, and season four is the history of David Duke).
This one follows the lives and unsolved murders of Tupac Skahur and Notorious B.I.G. I knew very little about the launch of hip hop in the early 1990s, the political push back against it and the personal history of two talented stars that became the face of music’s deadliest rivalry but this gave a thorough look at the men, the movement and the moment.
Intrigue: Tunnel 29
You won’t find this podcast on Apple or Google podcast apps unfortunately but it is available here on the BBC’s website.
Ten relatively short episodes (about 20 minutes each) cover the story of a group of engineering students in the 1960s who decide to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in the hopes of helping friends and family escape from East Germany.
You’re Wrong About: Princess Diana
3 episodes (so far)
The hosts of this American podcast open their deep dive by noting the ridiculousness of talking about a love triangle between three of the most privileged white people in the world during this current moment in history. However, despite the many news clippings, gorgeous outfits, sly comments and tragic end, the story of Diana is still a human one and this podcast looks at her whole life through that lens, looking at just how influential and controlling the Royal Family institution can be.
The hosts are loose and casual in a conversational way and appear to refuse to edit so it really feels like listening to a friend enthusiastically tell you about a woman you know from history but have never really known.
Nice White Parents
So this is cheating a little bit because this podcast miniseries does have some bearing on current realities surrounding race and racism. However, the first podcast from the now-combined New York Times and Serial team is an insightful and individual deep dive into one public school in Brooklyn.
It looks at how people envision and action the idea of a better school for their children, feeding into ideas of gentrification, traditional testing as a measurement for success and what we want our children to learn from an educational system itself, not just its teachings.
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