By Reggie Ugwu
As always, consider this list not an objective ranking but a kind of tip sheet — more Michelin Guide than the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. These podcasts, presented in alphabetical order, excelled at their missions, whether documenting the impact of national battles on local schools, unpacking internalized fatphobia, or questioning the pedigree of a famed Italian cheese. Casual and avid podcast listeners alike should come away with a clear sense of what the medium can do.
Launched in 2014, 10 months before “Serial,” this venerated series about “people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle” has grown only more impressive with time. Its creators, Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer, craft a different, contained universe within each episode — interviewing the relevant subjects, unfurling stranger-than-fiction plotlines — which is a remarkable feat given the show’s move, earlier this year, from a twice monthly to a weekly release schedule. Episodes about a woman who made a brief career of pretending to be Aretha Franklin, the murder of a wolf in Yellowstone Park, and the unraveling of rapper G. Dep — who voluntarily confessed to killing a man 17 years after the fact — demonstrate the show’s range and humanism.
Willa Paskin’s deep-dive investigations into questions you never thought to ask (Is Parmesan cheese “authentic” Italian? What ever happened to slow dancing? What was the deal with hovercraft?) are more rigorous than they need to be, which is what makes them so much fun. Paskin — a former television critic, and among the best writers working in audio — knows the secret potential of trivial cultural phenomena: If not a window into the soul of a society, per se, then a good yarn to share at a cocktail party. In its fifth year, “Decoder Ring” was as unpredictable (does parking infrastructure count as “culture”? Maybe!) and rewarding as ever.
Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton’s dogged and empathetic reporting shines throughout this ambitious and well-crafted series about the fight over transgender rights in public schools. Two years after their award-winning series “Southlake,” which explored the backlash against racial justice programs in a Dallas suburb, Hixenbaugh and Hylton turn their focus to the community right next door, where an insurgent Christian nationalist movement upends the lives of a trans girl and her teacher. “Grapevine” excels at weaving from micro to macro, showing how political and cultural trends in capitol buildings and on cable news can harm vulnerable individuals downstream.
Jonathan Goldstein’s hard-to-classify series (part investigation of the week, part memoir, part “Queer Eye”) has always felt like a minor miracle. Goldstein and his producers, Kalila Holt and Stevie Lane, tackle a different mission in each episode, using the tools of investigative journalism to help people seeking answers to questions weighing on their psyche. In its eighth season, featuring a reunion with a childhood friend in the last months of his life (“Lenny”), a confrontation with an unrequited high school crush (“Lief”) and an unconventional love story that unfolds like a forgotten Roberto Bolaño novella (“Victor and Maite”), the show again offers proof that the stories with the highest stakes are rarely those that make the headlines.
Before Donald Trump appointed a sixth conservative justice to the Supreme Court, “More Perfect” — founded in 2016 by Jad Abumrad, the creator of Radiolab, and Suzie Lechtenberg — identified the third and most mysterious branch of government as a near-bottomless font of stories about the biggest questions in our society: Who has power? Where does it come from? What makes our founding principles so hard to uphold? The show’s fourth season, led by Julia Longoria, spun captivating and timely narratives out of, among other topics, the conflict between religious freedom and the rule of law, the lives and jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas and David Souter and the slippery definition of fetal “viability.” The court’s growing reputation as a divisive and destabilizing force in American life has only made these stories feel more urgent.
‘Say More With Dr? Sheila’
Performance, rather than celebrity, is at the center of Amy Poehler’s hilarious, inspired and unscripted riff on couples therapy podcasts and the modern relationship guru. Listening to her improvise in the title role of “Dr? Sheila” — the total commitment, the apparent glee — feels a little like watching Michael Jordan drive to the basket. An outstanding roster of guest “couples” (the celebrity factor is a clear advantage here), including several “Saturday Night Live” all-stars and Kate Berlant and John Early, turns almost every episode of this mold-breaking series into a thrilling and hysterical high-wire act.
It’s rare that a podcast makes you physically shudder, but this twisty investigation into the phenomenon known as Havana Syndrome knows how to get under the skin. Beyond its disconcertingly liberal usage of the titular sound — heard in 2016 by several diplomats at the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Cuba who later reported cognitive injuries — host Nicky Woolf and producer Max Johnston reveal how cynical political actors, a reflexively secretive bureaucracy and sensationalist media coverage failed public servants and ordinary Cubans who are still living with the consequences. A pair of high-profile interviews in the eighth and final episode bring the series (majestically scored by the Attacca Quartet) to a compelling conclusion.
‘Think Twice: Michael Jackson’
There has never been a shortage of media coverage about Michael Jackson, either before his death in 2009 or after, when new allegations of child sex abuse led to a widespread reassessment of his legacy. But this authoritative, 10-part documentary series — which begins its account as a sanitized, Tony-award-winning Broadway musical is again demonstrating Jackson’s unsinkable allure — earns its place alongside the most incisive deconstructions of the most famous pop star who ever lived. Hosts Leon Neyfakh and Jay Smooth combine extensive archival footage (including clips that most casual fans haven’t heard) and dozens of supplementary interviews to shed fresh light on the unique cultural context that enabled the singer’s dominance.
‘The Turning: Room of Mirrors’
An intoxicating look into the elite, high-pressure world of the New York City Ballet, this 10-part series tells the story of famed choreographer George Balanchine and the company he built in his own image. The primary sources for Erika Lantz, who hosts the show, are Balanchine’s former dancer-muses, many now in their 60s and 70s, whose intimate recollections of life within the windowless confines of his studio paint a nuanced portrait of transformative art mingled with troubling abuse. Even today, many of those who loved and suffered Balanchine are unable to renounce him, complicating their efforts to find some measure of resolution.
‘Weight For It’
Even in podcasting, a medium whose nature fosters intimate disclosure, few hosts are as fearlessly candid as Ronald Young Jr. His searching exploration of what it means to love yourself and others in a fat body doesn’t coast on his considerable charm; often, it’s Young’s own flawed thinking and behavior (as in a memorable interview with an ex-fling he was once ashamed to be seen with in public) that comes under the microscope. When others are the source of discord (a thickheaded primary care doctor, clothing designers who shortchange large customers), “Weight for It” goes beyond superficial condemnation, thoughtfully illustrating how broadly accepted social norms can contribute to private suffering.