Podcast: Welcome to Night Vale

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“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”

These are the words that open the first episode of “Welcome to Night Vale,” a free twice-monthly podcast. The brainchild of creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Night Vale is a humorous ongoing love letter to weird fiction.

The podcast mimics a local community radio station for a small town somewhere in the desert of the Southwestern United States. The name of the community, as you might have guessed, is Night Vale. The show is hosted by Cecil Palmer, a dulcet-toned man of indeterminate age (literally– he may have graduated high school centuries ago, but more on that kind of thing later). Municipal news, local color, traffic updates and advertisements are read in a wonderfully calm and rich voice. Out of context, it seems like an ordinary local radio show, but listening to the podcast reveals the fact that Night Vale is not an ordinary town.

Weird things happen in Night Vale, ranging from mysterious lights in the sky above the Arby’s to an adult man’s detached hand attending elementary school. At a local PTA meeting, a portal to a distant time opens, unleashing a horde of bloodthirsty Pteranodons. One of the candidates for town Mayor is “literally a five-headed dragon.”

The list of absurdity goes on. Keep reading, and you’ll see why the outrageous setup works.

Good:

Let’s talk about presentation for a minute.

Night Vale, as I mentioned earlier, is a fictional local news broadcast, covering the weird events that take place in a desert community plagued by supernatural (or sufficiently advanced science-based) phenomena. This could easily be a horror series, but instead it’s one of the funniest productions I’ve heard in a long time. Why? Because Cecil narrates the news in such a deadpan, matter-of-fact way. These events, strange to outside observers, are treated as though they’re average occurrences. I mean, why wouldn’t there be an underground city deep below the pin-retrieval area of lane five of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex?

The point is that it isn’t just the events themselves that are absurd; it is people’s reactions to them. Because the bizarre is so commonplace, it has become mundane. Cecil’s presentation of the facts as they unfold is, more often than not, precisely what you would expect from a radio host commenting on, say, a budget fight at a city council meeting.

You know what sells the presentation? The most important thing for any story: the writing. And it is spot on. I don’t know how much of Cecil’s monologues are ad libbed, but it is the tiny details that get me laughing every time. It’s somewhat hard to describe without directly quoting the source material– and I want to avoid doing that– but picture a news story, like coverage of a press conference. Imagine what happens ten seconds after the camera switches back to the anchor. Picture the weirdest thing you can taking place right then, and then imagine it being narrated by Anthony Hopkins.

That’s the closest I can get.

It isn’t just the details that make you love the show; there is a whole cast of characters. Most of them aren’t voiced by anyone– they’re being quoted and narrated by Cecil. They’re all involved in a series of plotlines that are taking place, usually in the background. For example, Hiram McDaniels– literally a five-headed dragon– is one of the candidates for mayor. Throughout fifteen or twenty episodes, the show would sort of check in on the campaign. Sometimes it would be a message from McDaniels (always hilarious, because his five heads each have different personalities, and they argue constantly), sometimes it would be commentary from outgoing mayor Pamela Winchell. Whatever the case is, you actually feel like you’re getting news updates from this fictional town. It makes you feel like time actually passes in between the episodes, and that can be rare for a series like this.

Who am I kidding? There is no other series like this.

The overall production value also happens to be ludicrously high. The sound quality is always top notch– considering that this is an audio series, that’s important. The pilot is the exception; it doesn’t sound quite as clear as the rest of the series, but that’s to be expected. The opening theme and the background music fit the tone of the show perfectly. And Cecil Baldwin’s performance (as Cecil Palmer) is flawless. Seriously, I’ve listened to every episode several times and have yet to find a single stutter or mistake that wasn’t supposed to be there. The guy is fantastic.

Mixed:

And now,

The Weather.

Every episode features a Weather segment, which is actually just music. They cover a truly staggering range of genres– no joke, I’m not even willing to do the work necessary to come up with a number, so just trust me when I say that it’s a lot. I have never heard any of the songs featured on the Weather section anywhere else, but I am not that into music.

Don’t get me wrong. I like it. I listen to it sometimes. But I listen to classic rock, eighties metal, or something with a brass section. I’m not the guy to turn on the radio and just be okay with whatever’s playing. I also don’t always have something playing in the background. I’m perfectly content to sit in silence.

The point is that I am not a connoisseur of kickin’ tunes. And I have yet to hear a song that I liked on the Weather. That doesn’t mean that these are bad songs. They aren’t! I’m just not into them. Maybe the next episode will have a song that becomes my new favorite!

Odds are good that your mileage is going to vary with the Weather. Some of the songs you’ll like, others you’ll hate. But guess what? You can skip it! Just, you know, fast forward. It’s not plot-relevant, so it isn’t like skipping over all of the Catelyn chapters in Game of Thrones even though you totally wanted to.

Bad:

Nothing. Two reviews in a row so far with empty “Bad” sections. Maybe that’s because I’m reviewing things that I like already. Maybe that’s because these two things happen to be awesome.

Conclusion:

Welcome to Night Vale is… impossible to explain adequately. It’s weird, it’s funny, it has literary references like you wouldn’t believe. It’s written extremely well, and is made by people who obviously love what they do. And it’s free! There aren’t any real advertisements on the show; a few episodes in, they begin opening with a request for donations. Some of the live shows they’ve done are available to purchase for a couple of bucks, and they’re honestly worth it.

I’m a fan of Night Vale. I’ve been bothering my friends and family about it for over a year now. You might not be, but why don’t you give it a couple of episodes to try to convince you? It might help make your commute better. It’ll cost you nothing but twenty minutes.

Here is a link to the Night Vale Website.

Here is a link to their SoundCloud page. (They’re also on several other services, but I like SoundCloud the best. Check the Night Vale site for links to the other players if you like).

You can also follow them on Twitter here. And I recommend that you do; aside from show updates, they tweet some truly entertaining one-liners.

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