Audio drama engages the mind in a way no other kind of storytelling can. Listening to a story unfold through voices and sound effects alone, your brain is forced to fill in the visual blanks and dream the fictional world into being. This makes scripted podcasts a more active and immersive alternative to bingeing another streaming show — and, as a bonus, they’re usually free.
These seven scripted shows will keep you absorbed whether you’re traveling, enjoying a staycation or just trying to avoid following the news.
This touching, elegantly soundtracked coming-of-age drama centers on the language barrier between a mother and her son, and explores just how much can be lost in translation between two people. “Moonface” stars Joel Kim Booster as Paul, a 20-something Korean American struggling to find his path while living at home with his mother (Esther Moon). Despite their physical closeness, the pair are emotionally distant, in large part because they’re limited to small talk — he doesn’t speak much Korean, and she doesn’t speak much English. As a result, Paul’s mother is the only person in his life who doesn’t know he’s gay, and it’s that secret that drives Moonface toward its cathartic climax.
Starter episode: “Moaning”
‘Honeymoon for One’
Once a thriving genre, the big-screen romantic comedy has all but disappeared in recent years, as studios have turned increasingly away from mid-budget movies in favor of surefire tent-pole hits. Though streaming platforms like Netflix have stepped in to fill the void with on-demand movies, don’t overlook the immense pleasures of “happily-ever-afters for your ears,” as produced by RomComPods. This first series from the network follows a jilted bride who defiantly decides to go on her would-be honeymoon alone, and naturally ends up getting swept off her feet by a handsome Italian. Putting a fresh, insightful spin on familiar tropes, the show is a pure serotonin hit.
Starter episode: “Karaoke & Heartbreak”
Over the last couple of years, A-list podcast ensembles have become more and more common, and this gripping sci-fi treat from QCode features several actors you know and love. Thirty five years after the U.S.S. Hope disappeared, the families of its crew have long assumed that their loved ones are dead. But when the spaceship unexpectedly returns to earth, a sole survivor (Richard Madden, David Budd in “Bodyguard” and Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones”) remains on board — and even more strangely, he hasn’t aged a day. What this heady concept means is that Madden and Brian Cox (the paterfamilias Logan Roy in “Succession”) get to play twin brothers, even though they are 40 years apart in real life; Madden’s Edward went to space, while Cox’s Hunter stayed behind and aged normally. As Edward’s joyful reunion with his family takes a sinister turn, you’ll be hooked quickly.
Starter episode: “Some Kind of Impostor”
A wry, gently surreal British sitcom about rival small-town morticians, “Wooden Overcoats” is as entertaining as it is strangely comforting. Set on the fictional British Channel island of Piffling (just one of many outrageously quaint names), the show follows the twin Funn siblings, Rudyard and Antigone, who run their family’s funeral home. Since theirs is the only one on the island, the Funns have gotten away with doing the bare minimum for decades — but that changes when an obnoxiously charming and competent rival, Eric, sets up shop across the street. Thanks to carefully drawn and uniquely bizarre characters, impeccable sound design and writing that’s at once sharp and wholesome, “Wooden Overcoats” has earned its status as a podcast classic — and after a long hiatus, a fourth season is on the way.
Starter episode: “The Bane of Rudyard”
As countless classic movies have proven, there’s no better setting than outer space to delve into the psychological impact of isolation. And in an audio drama, without any visuals to distract you, that isolation takes on an even more intimate quality. “Wolf 359” takes place on a remote space station, and initially feels lightweight, focusing on a smartass slacker named Doug who’s just trying to stave off the intense boredom of his days in space. But as the ensemble broadens, and a vast, disturbing conspiracy begins to reveal itself, the show gradually becomes a twist-filled, profoundly gripping psychological character drama, blending moments of visceral horror with empathetic reflections on mental illness and abuse.
Starter episode: “Succulent Rat-Killing Tar”
“Mabel” begins with the most classic of horror story setups: A woman takes a live-in job at a mysterious, remote house, and soon becomes disturbed by strange occurrences within the house. In this case, our protagonist is Anna Limon, a home nurse who’s been hired to take care of Sally, an isolated older woman with dementia. As Anna tries in vain to contact Sally’s only living relative, her estranged daughter Mabel, Anna’s unanswered stream-of-consciousness voice mail messages become the narration to the show. And as things get spookier and spookier inside the house, so does the audio we’re hearing. The result, told over 40 episodes, is a nuanced and endlessly surprising ghost story.
Starter episode: “The Letters”
Though Wondery is one of the biggest names in podcasting (and was recently scooped up by Amazon), they’re known more for buzzy nonfiction thrillers like “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death” than scripted fare like “Blood Ties.” But this tightly plotted mystery series, which stars Gillian Jacobs and Josh Gad as two siblings whose parents die unexpectedly in a plane crash, is so binge-worthy that its two seasons may last you only a day. While grieving the loss of their parents, the siblings uncover dark secrets about their family business, and their own relationship begins to fray under the pressure.
Starter episode: “Post Mortem”
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