Mystery Show & 5 more short-lived podcasts

In the latest instalment of our Pod People podcast series, we sing the praises of Starlee Kline's Mystery Show, and pick out a few more of our favourite podcasts that shone brightly but briefly

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 16 Oct 2017

"Evan's not deep, but he's funny as fuck." That's Noel Gallagher some years ago explaining his friendship with Evan Dando. It’s a great line; as well as chucking a casual insult at Dando, it reminds people that Oasis are champions of idiocy. Somehow it’s both defensive and defiant – ‘you will find no profundity here!’ – which is fine. Sometimes. Must everything be a metaphor for Donald Trump, Brexit, environmental degradation and the approaching apocalypse?

With Mystery Show, Starlee Kline channels her inner Gallagher and tells us, no. It’s consistently funny, surprising and extraordinary, but Mystery Show is not deep.

The concept is simple. Chirpy investigator and This American Life alumnus Kline solves mysteries, armed with just a telephone, a laptop and a reasonable travel budget. We’re not talking about 'Are aliens real?'-type mysteries here. No, these mysteries are emphatically low-stakes. How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal? Does that license plate really say ‘ILUV911’? And, in the stand-out episode, where did you get that belt-buckle from?

It’s also the world’s first great lost podcast. In the spirit of Firefly, Sense 8 et al, Mystery Show was cancelled in an apparently acrimonious split from its hosts, leaving us with just six episodes. It’s not the end of the world. Not everything has to be deep and not everything has to last forever. With such a short run, there’s no need to be intimidated by Mystery Show’s length (or girth). If, despite this, you’re still not sure you can handle a whole series then Belt Buckle really is the money episode.

The story begins twenty-odd years ago when a boy finds a belt buckle by the side of the road, one with a distinctive engraving of a toaster and two fried eggs.  The boy grows up to become a friend of Starlee’s (that’s not a euphemism), and asks her to reunite this peculiar object with its rightful owner. So begins the mystery.

Both the investigation and the podcast are powered by the strength of Kline’s personality. She opens doors by getting people to open up, disarming them with her overwhelming pleasantness. People enjoy talking to her, which helps her be a great investigator. People enjoy listening to her, therefore she’s a great podcaster. 

She follows the leads, pulls the threads, talks to some oddballs, and arrives at an improbable conclusion that delivers a surprisingly satisfying emotional kick. She solves the mystery through her friendliness and enthusiasm, and reveals something universal about friendship, gratitude, and how we both change and stay the same as we get older. No, no, no, no. Too deep. It’s just funny as fuck.

Short and sweet podcasts

Not every great podcast has several hundred episodes, as proven by these five great shows

1) S-Town – New York reporter Brian Reed falls down a rabbit-hole in rural America and re-emerges with a story of tremendous emotional heft and political relevance. 

2) Why Bother – Admittedly this pre-dates the podcast era, but Peter Cook and Chris Morris improvising wildly is pretty timeless.

3) Dirty John – Real-life crime story about an abusive creep doing creepy abusive things. The moral? If your mother marries someone called Dirty John, start worrying.

4) More Perfect – An six-part delve into the US Supreme Court sounds esoteric to say the least, but the stories uncovered here are gripping and timely. Now back for a second season.

5) The Tip-Off – Eight episodes about British journalists uncovering grim scandals. There’s some seriously impressive people at work here.