Podcast of the Week: MYSTERY SHOW
The time? June of 2015. The place? The long, hard commute to a full-time summer internship. The way to pass the time? Podcasts, a medium I had staunchly avoided until then (why listen to people talk when you could listen to an album instead) but was finally ready to embrace. The first ones I loaded up were the seminal ones: SERIAL, THIS AMERICAN LIFE (which didn’t stick, actually), RISK!, and MYSTERY SHOW. While RISK! will always hold a special place in my heart, it was MYSTERY SHOW that first grabbed my attention and woke me the fuck up. This is what everyone was talking about when they said how great podcasts were? Because my God, they were entirely right. And then, after an all-too-short six episodes, MYSTERY SHOW packed up its bags and left, its departure becoming a mystery of its own right until host Starlee Kine broke the silence roughly a year later: for reasons that still seem sketchy despite the company’s official announcement, Gimlet Media (unfairly) dropped the podcast with little fanfare despite its massive critical acclaim. It surely had to have been one of the saddest moments in podcasting’s short history, and I still miss MYSTERY SHOW to this day. But when I bring it up in discussions of the podcasting greats, there are still several who scratch their heads, which is nothing short of an affront.
The world is a pretty strange place, filled with pretty strange locations, pretty strange people, and pretty strange things, often all combined. MYSTERY SHOW is a podcast for anyone who wonders at that that surrounds them. Where did that man get that shirt? Why did that person choose a car with that decal? What motivated that person to strike that pose in that picture from five decades ago? Starlee Kine sets out to actually get answers towards the microscopic, but no less obsessive, queries that drive many of our lives. The mundane minutiae of the cases instantly imbues every episode with a warm charm that’s impossible to deny, Kine treating each case like the most viscerally important whodunit in history, almost akin to the gumshoe heroes of your childhood (Nate the Great, anyone?).
The best starting point is probably with the universally beloved “Belt Buckle” episode. A man recalls a stunning belt buckle he found on the street in the ‘80s, elaborately designed with a chef’s hat, frying pan, and even a miniature toaster that pushed out a small piece of toast when pressed. Lost to history, Kine goes deep and explores every possible angle and avenue that could lead to rediscovering the belt. The most fascinating thing? She does, and the colorful and eccentric characters that guide her journey have to be heard to be believed. It’s that teasing out of the narrative thread, that humane exploration and care shown towards the vibrant personalities all around us that are only one instance of striking up a conversation away, that solidifies and pushes MYSTERY SHOW forward.
But while the other episodes involving hunting down a physical object are just as good (I’m partial to “Vanity Plate,” wherein Starlee track down a woman who owned a license plate reading “ILUV911”), the episodes searching for obscure facts or motivations are perhaps even stronger. Once “Belt Buckle” is under your belt, you’d do well to mosey on over to “Source Code,” which sees MYSTERY SHOW attempt to answer the question burning up the minds of the select few: just how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal? Every element of the episode, from the niche appeal of the question in general, to the fact that nobody had managed to reach an official consensus up until that point, to the extreme lengths Starlee goes to get Gyllenhaal on the phone to answer it himself, is fascinating to listen to, and I can guarantee a smile will stay on your face the entire time. However, what I believe to be the strangest mystery is present in “Britney.” The author of a self-hope book literally almost nobody read is shocked to find that Britney Spears was photographed holding it. Although the episode is mostly sidetracked by a famous lengthy heart-to-heart with a Ticketmaster employee, this episode yields the most interesting web in terms of how the book got into Britney’s hands, showcasing Starlee’s flooring capabilities as a compassionate interviewer to boot.
I really, really miss MYSTERY SHOW. I know it probably doesn’t help any of those involved with its creation to hear that, but this was truly something special that was taken away far too early. However, I am entirely confident that it can and will return, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when. Until then, I suggest you stop what you’re listening to immediately and dive into the precious six episodes that we have. This was podcasting’s best moment for my money, and it’s a shame the wind was cut out of its sails before more people could recognize it as such.