The difference between parody and withering critique is that of depth. It’s one thing to lampoon a genre or work by exaggerating its tropes and tics to show how ridiculous they are, but too much of what passes for “satire” these days simply stops there, sometimes out of an abundance of caution (after all, there’s nothing less funny than a failed attempt at humor), and sometimes simply out of self-satisfaction. You see this in pop culture all the time. HBO’s Silicon Valley and IFC’s Portlandia might goof on the tech industry and Portland in painstaking detail, but when the moment presents itself to really turn the screws on their targets, to point out the privilege and elitism to each of these cultures’ worldview, they always take the easy way out. And why wouldn’t they? Part of Silicon Valley’s verisimilitude has to do with a carefully cultivated whisper network of industry sources, while many of the Portlandia cast members are actual Portland residents. For those shows’ creators, it’s probably not worth it.
The second season of A Very Fatal Murder, the fake true-crime podcast from The Onion, is unburdened by such worries. While the first season gently ribbed podcasts such as Serial, Someone Knows Something, Crime Town, and S-Town, mimicking their rhythms, narrative red herrings, and, above all, the degree to which their hosts insert themselves into the narratives of others, its second season comes out talking more shit than Tupac did on “Hit ‘Em Up.” Its first episode finds host David Pascall, a fictional radio journalist (and, he frequently reminds us, recipient of a Peabody (web division)! Nomination!) asking the listener, “What elevates a true crime podcast from your run-of-the-mill murder porn to a repeatable franchise that keeps audiences coming back?” He continues, “Is it the vast improvements in audio quality? The built-in assumed respect for the host? The more recognizable sponsors? Or is it… the story? The darker, grittier subject matter? A new crime so titillating that listeners can’t turn away? A murder so gripping it blows your massively successful first season out of the water? Does a second season like that… even exist?”
And in pursuit of that second season, Pascall befriends a murderer and then joins his legal team, reanimates a corpse, frames an innocent man of a crime, and winds up in prison, editing his final episode on contraband MacBook Pro he hides “in a hollowed-out, 35-inch Bible.” The host’s journey makes a stop at pretty much every point in a true crime podcast that might give a person pause to consider the ethics of the enterprise, the biases at play, and the exploitation inherent to the genre as a whole.
Podcasts like Serial essentially start with a conclusion — “this person is innocent or guilty of this crime, and we’re going to show you why” — and build a narrative that leads up it, strategically dispensing key information in an incomplete way so that we’re left disoriented and paranoid until the very end, when everything falls into place and we can clearly see an argument supporting the show’s foregone conclusion. As shown by Adnan Sayed, the subject of the first season of Serial who, with every bit of information released related to his case, seems less like a convicted killer and more like a victim of a lazy and corrupt legal system, this isn’t even necessarily bad, but despite displaying the rigorous research and interview-based reporting we associate with objective journalism, these shows essentially engage in advocacy infotainment. A Very Fatal Murder’s new season takes this issue to its logical conclusion, sending its host out into the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles to chronicle the case of Mylo Reed, an evil, Elon Musk-esque billionaire accused of murdering his wife with a strangulation drone while high on a combination of magic mushrooms, cocaine, and Anthrax. The evidence against Reed is steep: in addition to leaving his DNA at the scene and holding a patent on the strangulation drone in question, he’s constantly threatening to murder people on Twitter, and generally comports himself as if there were zero consequences for his actions, ever.
But Pascall decides that it’s more interesting for his podcast to depict Reed as an innocent man, especially after he meets his subject for an interview and gets to throw bombs at robots, which he decides “is a pretty cool Billionaire Thing to do.” When his subject and new best friend is offered the type of cushy plea deals that only the ultra-rich have access to, Pascall urges Reed to reject it because its terms wouldn’t allow him to talk to the media and he’s on the hook with Luminary Media, the actual podcast platform on which AVFM exclusively airs, for 10 episodes. (The invocation of Luminary serves as a pointed reminder that these podcasts are always revenue-seeking enterprises, but then again, the joke might be on me here, since in order to listen to the whole show I had to sign up for a free trial with Luminary that I will inevitably forget about.) After Reed’s lawyers quit in disgust, he buys Pascall a law degree from Yale and installs him as his new attorney. In return, Pascall starts running ads for Reed’s companies, gives him an associate producer credit on the show, and even lets him play host for a while.
By the time the show devolves into sponsored content advocating for Reed’s innocence, he’s got Pascall cheerfully planting DNA evidence at a crime scene to demonstrate how broken our legal system is, helping him reanimate his dead wife’s corpse so they can put her on the stand, and hosting a “live” episode that also happens to be Reed’s actual trial in a kangaroo court he’s already bought off. The show is an absurdist portrait of how journalists are far too easily seduced by the rich and powerful people they write about, and how they can become their unwitting pawns. Listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but think about Elizabeth Holmes — the Theranos CEO who presided over a multi-billion dollar fraud with little in the way of scrutiny from the media, in part by withholding journalistic access to the company’s actual tech and instead asking reporters to take Holmes at her word — as well as Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which chronicles how the journalist Joe McGinnis sweet-talked his way into a spot on an accused murderer’s defense team, only to write a tell-all book about how the guy definitely did it. In A Very Fatal Murderer, however, it’s the murderer screwing the journalist over, leaving Pascall to rot in prison while he walks away with a sentence of “temporary vacation-arrest.” In the final episode, Pascall muses incredulously, “When I became best friends with Mylo and signed on to represent him in court, I had no idea that I’d somehow become a character in his story.”
Throughout the season, the show hones in on elements of true crime podcasting that are legitimately morally fraught. While Pascall goes all the way and plants DNA evidence and then bribes a witness in an attempt to lock some rando away for the rest of his life on a murder charge, actual true crime podcasters routinely broach a similar ethical line, throwing out red herrings that indicate to listeners that a strange interview subject isn’t just strange because people are strange sometimes, but instead have something to hide. In the new season of the CBC podcast Uncover, host Justin Ling literally asks the listener if the serial killer he’s been investigating committed a pair of random, decades-old murders, stringing us along for minutes until he dismisses the notion as implausible (“If it was so implausible, why ask at all?” said no one in the Uncover editing bay to Ling, apparently).
Similarly, pretty much every true crime podcast metaphorically exhumes a murder victim and brings them to life as a character in an attempt to “tell their story.” But given that they’re unable to consent to having their story be told, in effect they’re little more than metaphorical zombies, revived to serve the whims of the podcaster before ushered offstage when they’re no longer useful. When Pascall, serving as Mylo Reed’s lawyer, calls his client’s freshly reanimated dead wife to the stand, she robotically announces to the court that Mylo killed her and then explodes. “I thought that my star witness would win the whole case for Mylo. Instead, she had implicated him in her murder,” he intones after the scene. “Would my case explode in front of [the jury], too? And what about my dreams of legal fame?” Just like that, she’s dismissed from the podcast altogether, never to be heard from again, and the focus returns to the host. Or maybe it never really left there. Either way, cue the somber piano music.