Illustration: Jim Cooke / Photos: Shutterstock
Everyone should be listening to an audio drama podcast—the kind of podcast that plays out like theater or movies or TV. Listening to podcasts without any audio dramas like watching TV without ever trying Game of Thrones or Arrested Development or Orange Is the New Black. And while the medium is about to explode with spinoffs of existing franchises, there are already dozens of great original shows to try. Here are some of the best.
Let’s start with the funny ones.
Victoriocity: Steampunk adventure comedy
A detective and a journalist run around a scifi Victorian London solving the murder of an inventor. If you’ve ever read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, then you will love this show. It’s good for anyone who likes genre fiction and arch British jokes. Unlike Hitchhiker’s, the plot is surprisingly meticulous.
Mission to Zyxx: Improvised space parody
A diplomatic space team fails mission after mission. I hesitate to call Zyxx a parody of Star Wars and Star Trek, because it stands on its own much better than “parody” implies. There’s a Bojack Horseman vibe to this show, where the whole world follows a mad kind of logic. While the show is made up on the spot, it’s then heavily edited and cinematically sound produced. We interviewed the creators about their process last year.
The Offensive: Snappy workplace sitcom
This is Veep but for the management team of an English football club. This is mainly a show about people insulting each other in very clever ways. While many references lean on a little knowledge of footie or of British culture, I still love it even as a sports-phobic American.
Gay Future: Wacky dystopia
“The year is 2062 and everyone is gay.” This show is buck wild. Lightly framed as Mike Pence’s failed Divergent ripoff, Gay Future follows the “straight resistance” against President Clay Aiken. The sound design and soundtrack are a treat, and the story and acting are like a cartoon for adults.
The Amelia Project: Brief interviews with hideous people
The Amelia Project helps people fake their deaths. Each episode, a different client explains their situation and plans their demise and their getaway. This is a short, lighthearted show that’s getting more sophisticated in its second season.
Traffic Therapy: Straightforward sketch comedy
Sketch shows are inherently hit-or-miss, but the hits on this will make you wish they each had their own series. My favorite sketch, from the pilot, features a James Bond obsessed with nicking the hotel toiletries.
Hello From the Magic Tavern: Goofy fantasy-world chat show
This is like Comedy Bang! Bang! set in Middle-Earth. Earth-man Arnie Niekamp co-hosts with a shapeshifting badger and a wizard, and guests play every kind of being you’ve ever met in a fantasy story: elves, skeletons, cult acolytes, talking birds, trolls, Conan the Barbarian types. Most episodes just have characters shoot the shit. But in its third season, the show is following more of a plot. There’s also a B plot about an inter-dimensional space bunker.
Podcasting is perfect for musical theater.
Off Book: The Improvised Musical: Broadway musical parody
Musical improv is super hard, and half the jokes on this show are funnier because they could never work in a scripted story. But the other half are funnier because it’s insane that someone thought them up on the fly. Best episodes include the pilot “Shrugging Destiny” with Paul F. Tompkins, the all-star episode “Cats 2,” and (currently behind the Earwolf Network paywall) “Always Sad, Always Happy” with Will Hines.
36 Questions: Earnest musical romance
A three-act musical stars Hadestown’s Jessie Shelton and Spring Awakening’s Jonathan Groff as a couple in crisis after one of them is caught lying about her past. They use the famous ”36 questions to fall in love” to get reacquainted. It’s like a quirkier, wider-eyed Last Five Years.
A Twilight World of Ultimate Smoothness: Late-night radio parody
This six-episode series is presented in real time as a sexy late-night radio show with an unsexy host. Between bits of story, there are real bedroom classics with lyrics like “You can see inside me, will you come inside me? Do you wanna ride inside my love?” Meanwhile the host is trying to date his listeners and offload branded terry-cloth robes.
While some of these shows are funny, the human drama is more important than the laughs.
Earth Break: Post-apocalypse personal drama
Jenny Slate does some of the best acting in an audio drama, some of the best acting in anything at all, as a woman stranded after an alien invasion. There are a ton of post-apocalypse audio dramas, but none are this emotionally gutting. This show can terrify you, and it can make you cry.
Welcome to Night Vale: Weird horror dramedy
Each episode is a community radio broadcast from a creepy desert town populated by angels, ghosts, doppelgängers, talking dragons, and secret police, narrated by a host who treats it all as normal small-town stuff. H. P. Lovecraft based his horror on the idea that whatever is utterly foreign to you is terrifying. This show—one of the older and most famous audio dramas—does the opposite. We interviewed the team about their live tours last year.
Breaked: Witty theatrical one-act
This standalone half-hour piece is like GIRLS or Fleabag but way gayer. It’s about a young woman trying to puzzle out which of her behaviors are the results of her bipolar disorder, and which are her own damn fault.
Forest 404: Cyberpunk dystopia
In a dark urban future, a young archivist hears the sound of a thriving forest, and goes on a mission to find what the hell she’s just listened to. Minority Report, Blade Runner, and 1984 influence this BBC scifi tragedy. The sounds are exquisitely engineered, as is the theme song by electronic artist Bonobo.
Within the Wires: Alt-history drama
Each season of this thoughtful, artful show tells a different story in a different format, but all set in the same fictional universe where the nation-state no longer exists. In season 1, you’re listening to meditation tapes with an ulterior motive. In season 2, you’re on audio tours of various art museums and galleries. In season 3, you’re getting dictaphone messages from your boss in the New World Order’s government. And in a supporters-only season, you’re hearing pilot announcements while being smuggled around the world.
The Truth: Artsy, quirky anthology
Sometimes you get a comedy, sometimes drama, sometimes genre fiction. A lot of the show is recorded on location, with a fresh “in the room” sound design that pops out against the usual “four people in a podcast studio” setup. The cast includes one-time performers and series regulars, and occasionally one story stretches across multiple episodes.
The Shadows: Intimate mumblecore romance
This is the most innovative use of the podcast format I’ve ever heard. Kaitlin Prest, creator of the docu-podcast The Heart, builds a challenging love story out of half-real, half-improvised conversations. The show is incredibly intimate, sometimes sexy, sometimes cringe-inducing. If you like Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Eternal Sunshine, and the Modern Love column, this show will thrill you.
There really are tons of shows. If you run out of the above, try these:
- Blockbuster: Docu-drama (“biopod”) about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas making their big breaks
- The Infinite Now: Dispatches to time travelers and inter-dimensional spies
- The Two Princes: Young-adult fairy-tale adventure and love story
- Wolf 359: Red Dwarf space comedy that morphs into an action thriller
- Wooden Overcoats: Cozy sitcom about two competing funeral homes in an island town
- The Adventure Zone: The McElroy brothers and their father play D&D, at first kinda joking around, then getting serious about the story
- The Message, The Polybius Conspiracy, Limetown, Video Palace: Four speculative fiction podcasts that bleed into the edges of narrative documentary, each in different ways
- Academicasaurus: An indie horror-comedy show great for anyone who’s served time in grad school
- Gold Diggers: A dramatic thriller that’s also a guide to locking down a rich husband
- Mina’s Story: A short-form scifi drama about a woman who wakes up 200 years in the future
- Russian for Cats: A small show about an escaped cat, with a little Russian vocab lesson in each episode
- Purple Panties: Erotic fiction, I truly cannot elaborate
- Dreamboy: Trippy, erotic mystery that hot-swaps between levels of reality
- Adventures in New America: You know Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist multi-album concept series Metropolis, especially the radio interludes on The Electric Lady? This is like that plus vampires.
While I am always correct about everything, tastes are subjective, and you’ll find many more recommendations and audio drama reviews here:
I have left out so many shows. Other enthusiasts are welcome to fill in the gaps below.