Over the past few years, Leon Neyfakh has helped chip away at the idea of an unprecedented age. For many of the steps in both ongoing and shelved crises in modern American politics, Neyfakh’s hosted podcasts have presented both tangible and spiritual connections to the headlines of the relatively recent past.
The latest example is the second season of the Luminary series “Fiasco.” After launching the podcast with a six-part deep dive into the chaos of the 2000 presidential election, the show then turned its attention to the Reagan administration. The mid-’80s series of connected weapon deals, hostage negotiations, and resultant attempts to fund rebel groups in Nicaragua may now have the recognizable four-syllable umbrella of “Iran-Contra.”
But for many who never lived through that unfolding saga, the podcast serves as a substantial replacement for the ethereal gap in public consciousness. In Season 2, “Fiasco” details the origins, immediate impact, and elusive legacy that has grown in the past three decades.
“Iran-Contra is this massive controversy that never gets canonized,” Neyfakh told IndieWire “One question we’re asking with this season of ‘Fiasco’ is, ‘How will right now look in 30 years? Can we trust that the real story of how this unfolded will be remembered properly in 30 years?’ The Iran-Contra story kind of indicates that we shouldn’t have that expectation, or at least it’s distinctly possible that it will fully evaporate.”
Some of the most potent threads across “Fiasco” and the Neyfakh-hosted seasons of the Slate podcast “Slow Burn” — which he created with producer Andrew Parsons — have centered on a broader, changing media narrative. In presenting the clearest view of the tick-tock surrounding major breaks in these individual affairs, these shows also chart the similar track of how public response shifts over that time. Maybe it’s something inherent to the American political system, but from a storytelling perspective, Neyfakh said that there’s a pattern in how these stories seem to want to be told.
“In a way, I’m shocked every single time we do these seasons that there are these seemingly inherent stages to scandal. At the halfway point, everything breaks out into the open in some way and then the back half is like people trying to clean it up,” Neyfakh said.
And then there are the inescapable parallels with the present. The last episode of the Iran-Contra season details a report that comes out in the days before a presidential election that effectively sinks one of the campaigns. Years later, figures in positions of power complain about the taxpayer cost of an independent investigation looking into potential wrongdoing.
Those are the kind of echoes that Neyfakh and Parsons might have more actively courted during the making of the first “Slow Burn” season on Watergate. Over time, as the central story of each season has changed, the reverberations and coincidences that happen across generations have announced themselves in more unexpected places. After a certain point, it’s almost impossible not to resign yourself to the idea that while these scandalous chapters are certainly distinct, they’re not always unique.
“The closest I have to a profound thought about why those echoes happen and why those resonances seem to be so relentless is that there is some kind of logic of scandal. You can count on there being a progression of some kind where certain conflicts will arise,” Neyfakh said. “There will be conflicts between the special prosecutor and the executive branch. Those conflicts will concern evidence and testimony. At a certain point, the press functions with a certain metabolism. I’ve learned to not be as surprised when specific subplots unfold in the past that I recognize from the present.”
These seasons always seem to have at least a handful of characters who seemed destined to keep hold of their share of history, yet end up receding into the outer layers of what people remember from these scandals. As these shows prove, those individual’s contributions not only prove necessary to provide context that most audiences will have forgotten, they end up giving some of the most compelling accounts in the present day.
“Part of what I like about the way we do these seasons is we talk to people, obviously, who are principals in the events we’re covering: someone like John Poindexter or Bud McFarlane in Iran-Contra. We also make a point of talking to the non-boldface names, people who were there and who saw things unfold from up close and maybe played some part in them,” Neyfakh said. “I find a lot of those narratives that we get from people who fall in that category are very relatable. When you listen to the story of Ian Crawford, the parachuting expert who gets tapped to fly supplies over Nicaragua on behalf of the enterprise to arm the Contras, we try to find experiences that were defined by these historical events that are fundamentally personal.”
While there are tangible ripple effects from the events of Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, and Bush v. Gore, telling the story of Iran-Contra represented a kind of shift toward a story of more immediate danger. “Fiasco” focuses on men whose lives hung in the balance as discussions over the delivery of weapons dragged out longer and longer.
With an eye toward drawing those kinds of explicit lines between specific decisions and the ramifications for people’s livelihoods, “Fiasco” has already found its Season 3 topic. It’s one outside of the show’s more obvious pattern, but it still looks to the 1970s to chronicle a pivotal chapter in the history of a major American city.
“We’re doing the story of the desegregation of Boston’s public schools. It’s the story of how activists in Boston essentially brought the civil rights movement to the North and started a movement to make the schools in Boston equal. There was incredible segregation in the Boston Public Schools and remedying that was a process that unfolded over a number of years. It’s most often talked about in terms of the busing crisis which took place specifically during two years. I think there’s a longer story than that,” Neyfakh said.
Bringing this idea to “Fiasco” came from a conversation between Neyfakh and Sam Graham-Felsen, a friend and writer. Though it doesn’t have a story anchor in the White House like previous seasons, Neyfakh said there are elements within the desegregation fight that intertwine with existing aspects of the show.
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“It’s a different kind of story for us, obviously. It’s not about a scandal, per se. It’s not about a bunch of people in a room coming up with a scheme. It’s a story about a process, a story about social movement,” Nekyfakh said. “It’s a story about the values of… people who see themselves as being on the right side of history, who then turn into reactionaries when they are in some way threatened personally, or they think they are. It’s such a direct glimpse of how government policy and politics define the parameters of people’s lives.”
Work on Season 3 is well underway. While the core group behind the Iran-Contra season — also including Parsons, Ula Kulpa, and Madeline Kaplan — was finishing those episodes, Graham-Felsen and producer Soraya Shockley started to lay the foundation for the season ahead. Plenty of research, conversations, and episode structuring were done before conditions made travel and in-person discussions impossible. Under less-than-ideal circumstances, the combined team has been able to continue to gather information and conduct interviews.
“I mostly do feel lucky that we are as far along as we are. We still need a lot more reporting and there are a lot of rather elderly people that we want to interview, which is a challenge right now,” Neyfakh said. “It’s all about trying to see how much appetite they have for finding the perfect room in which to sit in their house and record, how much willingness they have to download an app to improve the quality of the recording. It just slows everything down. We try to optimize it in some way that approximates the quality that we get in the studio or with a tape sync, which is what we would have normally done under typical circumstances. But I think Andrew has been doing an incredible job setting up systems for us and making sure that we have options.”
Though the conditions have changed in various ways since he and Parsons began on the Watergate season of “Slow Burn,” Neyfakh said that the growing team has been fortunate in being able to build on a foundation that had many pieces in place from the start.
“We stumbled into some approaches that really worked for us. We steered ourselves toward a style that was the result of the differences between how we approach storytelling,” Neyfakh said. “In those differences, we hatched a sensibility, and we really refine the process every season. Creating a workflow and a system for how to make these things is almost its own creative project that has to be done right for it to work.”
“Fiasco” Season 2 is now available via Luminary, where Season 1 can currently be streamed for free.