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Roll Up for the Magical Mystery Show

22 Jun


Hey, have you heard about this new mystery podcast? You like mystery podcasts, right? I mean, don’t we all want to know who killed Hae?

This mystery podcast, conveniently titled Mystery Show, probably is not going to tell us what the deal is with Jay and Adnan (though it would be a hell of an episode if it did). Instead, This American Life alum Starlee Kine solves a mystery in each hour of air time. To date, four episodes in, the mysteries aren’t that big. What kind of person would get a vanity license plate that reads ILUV911? How did Britney Spears come to be photographed with a particular author’s second book, which nobody else seemed to read? (Sub-question: Britney, Secret Bookworm?) What’s the story with an engraved belt buckle found in a Phoenix arroyo twenty-five years ago? They’re the kinds of mysteries that don’t warrant a call to the police, can’t be Googled, and make you want to drum up all the unsolved questions of your own life for Kine to chew on.

Mystery Show is essentially a light procedural. Kine’s working the phones and knocking on doors, she’s running license plates, she’s befriending chefs in Phoenix, she’s going to Vegas in hopes of asking Britney about the book thing. (I don’t know how many cases she’s working on at a time, but it sounds like a pretty fun job.) She has contacts who can help, or she doesn’t; lines of questioning work out, or they don’t. It makes you wonder about your own resourcefulness: how far would you go for the answer to somebody else’s minor mystery, and how would you go about it, anyway?

If all this were the best part of Mystery Show, it would still be entertaining. Kine is funny, the stories veer off in unexpected directions, and it’s sometimes affecting without feeling heavy. But in most cases, the solving of the mystery is not even remotely the best part. The best part is when Kine gets people—total strangers—talking, nudging them into conversation and then stepping aside as the recorder runs. And they tell her the most incredible things. These people usually aren’t central to the case; they’re customer service reps and people hanging out at the local bar, and we never hear from them again. But they tell her about their lives, about what they love, about why they are where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This is where Kine’s decade-plus of radio experience is the most evident: she knows how to strike up a friendly conversation, how to follow the scent of something interesting even if it’s mostly irrelevant to the case, and the value of letting people talk things out. She’s patient. And it’s these moments that are the real gems of Mystery Show, the parts that make you think, “well, that was amazing.”

And that’s why, though it’s early to make pronouncements, Mystery Show could be one of the greats of its genre. With the exception of This American Life, where “stories about people” is the entire stated goal, storytelling shows are never about what they’re about. (Not everybody can be This American Life; we already have one of those, plus many, many imitators.) They all have structures—murder mysteries or found media or “storytelling with a beat”—and then they have something they’re about: generally, stories the audience might not have heard otherwise. Mystery Show is young, but it’s already got this down: it’s about solving the small mysteries of life, but it’s about radio as a way of life and an excuse to listen to people. It’s about the people Kine meets along the way and the stories they tell her—and she’s really good at getting and curating those stories.