As part of Podcast Week, IndieWire is taking a deeper look at some of the best podcasts of the year. For more of the top episodes of 2019, you can read our mid-year and year-end lists here and here.
Whether or not it was Jean-Luc Godard who actually said it, there’s a long-held maxim that “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.”
But what about podcasts? On the production end, Chris Kelly has an idea.
“I’ve been doing this kind of fake stuff for awhile. There’s only three types of rooms that you ever need. You need a quiet room that’s dead, that can sound like a bedroom, a closet. Then you’ve got your medium size room that’s like a kitchen or a foyer. Then there’s your large room. Once you get to that large-sized room, if you’ve got it, it can be anywhere. You can sweeten it to make it sound bigger than it needs to be,” Kelly told IndieWire.
“This Sounds Serious,” a fictional true crime podcast, certainly takes advantage of all three. Directed by Kelly and a production of the Vancouver-based Kelly & Kelly, which has been behind a number of other audio fiction endeavors, the show is a parody anthology of sorts, following a different satirical fake crime every season through the lens of radio reporter Gwen Radford (Carly Pope).
Season 2, released earlier this year, is a missing person story, as Gwen tries to track the disappearance of Melissa Turner. Along the way, she has to contend with a number of residents and suspects in Tom Day, Oregon, including the town’s mayor.
There are a handful of true crime series that try to uncover truths behind some of the most notorious cases in media history, stories that feature internationally recognizable household names. But learning what worked in the show’s first season, the team knew that shifting to a more local, focused fake story would yield more satisfying results.
“Based on everything we learned in Season 1, we knew the key is that it has to be a mystery that it feels small enough that it’s real. The small kind of local news type stories aren’t going too big. That’s a key for us, really trying to keep it believable and grounded, but far-fetched that it lives in that comedy space,” Kelly said.
Part of the key to making the show feel grounded and letting those details catch people’s attention is in the performances themselves. Pope is ultra-committed to capturing that objective audio journalist narration style. Getting the rest of the impressively large voice ensemble to help tap into that same philosophy was a significant part of the casting and recording process.
“We know when Gwen’s allowed to be funny and when she’s not supposed to be funny. It’s just kind of finding that balance,” Kelly said. “Our main guiding principle in this show and in a lot of the stuff that we do is: In audio if you’re trying to be funny, it really sounds like you’re trying to be funny. It sounds a bit false.”
There are still slight variations on that idea. Aaron Read plays Jimmy Kline, a resident of Tom Day, Oregon who might have been famous for his online YouTube channel if he wasn’t notorious for his frequent hostage situations. Jimmy’s one of the main Season 2 subjects, a kind of foil to Gwen, giving Read plenty of time to play around with a performance that lets the jokes and the character reach the perfect kind of parody singularity. He’s following in a tradition that Kelly says one of the show’s creators, Peter Oldring, helped establish in the first season.
“Peter, who plays the twins in Season 1, he’s definitely our golden compass when it comes to how to do these things. He’ll give you the read on whatever’s in the script, but he’ll give you a twist on it, maybe an extra word that isn’t being forced or punched, but it’s just weird enough,” Kelly said. “It makes you laugh at the reality of the situation where you’re like, ‘Wait, does this person exist? And if they do exist, what a weird character!’ Aaron is a perfect example of that. The way the words come out of his mouth are just funny and intriguing enough to be believable, but also hilarious.”
Rather than record everything in the same kind of studio and try to rework it in post-production, Kelly tried to make sure that they stayed true to how that audio would be gathered in real life. Phone calls were recorded through an actual phone call. If someone was posting videos to an online channel, they had the actors perform those parts into a built-in laptop mic.
“We’re very committed to authenticity. In Season 2, there’s a crazy bank robbery phone call. We have a fairly open-concept office and it’s just big enough with enough reflections to make it sound like a big bank. So we just recorded it right in our office,” Kelly said. “All of that stuff is tricky to pull off, make it sound convincing, but also have it play. But we just crammed in as many actors as we could around a single phone and did it a bunch of times. It was definitely worth it and a lot of fun to do.”
Those different environments presented a challenge from a plotting perspective. As much as Kelly and writers Dave Shumka, Mark Chavez, and Pat Kelly wanted to create something that they could easily control, part of getting the full scope of true crime investigations meant that, at some point, Gwen had to get out from the booth and out into the field.
“It’s tricky to do, to be honest. It’d be amazing if the entire story was just told after the fact, but it does feel more interesting and more active if Gwen is out in the field. That’s really important to feel like Gwen’s in danger at some points, that there’s a little bit of tension,” Kelly said.
In this season, “This Sounds Serious” offers up some fictional versions of not just true crime podcasts, but some other fan-favorite shows. (There’s even an official annotated list of all the team’s influences here.) Kelly says that many of those bigger world inclusions come from a place of admiration. (There’s a running Palm Pilot gag in Season 2 that’s a direct nod to the last year’s Foxconn-centered episode of “Reply All,” which Kelly calls his favorite podcast.) So in order for those show-within-a-show riffs to make sense, they had to reflect that same commitment to detail.
“If there’s something going on in podcasting that we want to comment on, we try and do it,” Kelly said. “The ‘Ear Hustle’ thing was recorded on different mics. The ‘Reply All’ thing was EQ’d differently. I’m pretty precise about that stuff because I find it fun. I feel like that’s part of why we like doing what we do is that you get to deconstruct and recreate the shows that you love.”
Anyone curious to see where the show goes next won’t have to wait too long — Kelly says that Season 3 is already in the works. But the show leaves a pretty solid farewell for the Melissa and Jimmy story, one with just the right amount of ambiguity for a genre that rarely gets to engage in something with a definitive ending.
And, through this whole process of making a true crime show that go anywhere it pleases, it also takes time for Gwen’s narration to address some of the ways that the real-life true crime inspirations for “This Sound Serious” can also treat their subjects as characters in their own narratives.
“At the end of the day, in some cases, shows like ‘In the Dark’ are having a positive impact. But in the other sense, this is just entertainment. And the only people benefiting really are the broadcasters or the network,” Kelly said. “Are you just sensationalizing it and using somebody else’s story to your benefit? So that was something that we thought, ‘Yeah. In some sense, maybe the only ethical true crime is satirical true crime.’ It’s a weird line.”
“This Sounds Serious” Seasons 1 and 2 are available to listen on all podcast platforms.