Mystery Show

(Before I left for South Africa I wrote up a little thing about Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show podcast, but then I never got around to posting it. Better late than never?)

My favorite new podcast is very definitely Starlee Kine and Gimlet Media’s new Mystery Show. Over on Fusion, Molly Fitzpatrick has a pretty good summary of why it’s so awesome. There was one thing in Fitzpatrick’s summary that I disagreed with, though:

“One of the unexpected pleasures of ‘Mystery Show’ is its host’s interactions with the strangers she encounters in the process of investigating a case.”

It’s not that I think those interactions aren’t wonderful — on the contrary, I think they’re pretty much the best part of the show. The part of this statement that I disagree with is the word ‘unexpected’. If you, like me, have loved Kine’s work since 2003’s This American Life segment The Rundown, then you knew the moment Mystery Show was first announced that her incidental interviews were destined to be some of the best radio ever made.

If you haven’t heard Kine’s Rundown segment, you should go listen to it now. (There’ll be spoilers in a minute.) In it, Kine describes her technique for defeating small talk. She advocates abandoning the conversation you should be having in favor the conversation you want to be having. She illustrates this with a conversation with a movie theater ticket seller. Here’s her final summary of that conversation:

Kine: “After a minute and 26 seconds through The Rundown, I know what he’s had for breakfast, that he is capable of love, how many girls he has slept with, how many of them are virgins, who he first lost his virginity to, and even the color wallpaper of her grandmother’s house. So that’s pretty good.”

I can remember listening to this segment with my father back when it first aired. It was a classic driveway moment, both of us sitting in our garage unwilling to get out of the car. It’s literally the first specific radio segment I remember. My father and I are both introverts who have had to learn to pass in an extroverted world, so I think something about Kine’s refusal to play by the conversational rules resonated with us. The segment quickly became one of those things we’d reference periodically in conversation, a sort of creed that neither of us has the courage to fully live by.

As I’ve been listening to Mystery Show, though, I started to notice something: The Rundown isn’t really about small talk. Look at the examples we have: Movie theater ticket counter; bookseller; Ticketmaster customer service rep. Those aren’t water cooler smalltalk situations — they’re transactions. The expected social script here doesn’t require idle chitchat, but service. The interlocutors are not equally powerful — one is a customer, and the other is a server.

These kinds of interactions have the potential to be deeply dehumanizing. It’s all too easy, as a customer, to treat those who are serving us as simple mechanisms for fulfilling our needs. It’s often easier to settle for having a transaction with the institution than an interaction with a human. We start to see to see the customer service rep as as a kind of glorified FAQ, the cashier as a button labeled “Buy now with 1-Click”.

And that is exactly what is so wonderful about Kine’s interviews. She refuses to play by that script and insists on interacting with the full humanity of whoever she’s talking to. If I had to summarize The Rundown in one sentence, I’d say: Never settle for a transaction when you can have an interaction. This is a much harder rule to follow than simply “avoid smalltalk”, but also, I think, a lot more important.