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The unstoppable rise of television-rewatch podcasts

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

Talking Sopranos; Office Ladies

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Talking Sopranos — a new weekly podcast which launched this month— is another example of a seemingly unstoppable sub-genre occupying an ever-growing slice of the podcast market: the television-rewatch podcast.

The format is simple: take any much-loved yet expired television series (the kind usually prefaced by words like ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen…’) and scan the cast list until you find some former stars willing to work for an affordable rate. Record them giving an audio commentary on each episode and, bingo, you’ve got yourself dozens of hours of podcasts — and a massive fan base waiting to be converted to listeners.

Add a few external factors — say, hundreds of millions of people trapped in their homes with nothing to do but watch television — and you can see why rewatch podcasts are enjoying something of a moment. But are they any good? Even with the most obsessive fan base in the world, a rewatch podcast needs two basic elements to work: decent chemistry between the hosts, and something interesting to say.

Do Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli — aka Tony Soprano’s big-hearted sidekick Bobby Baccalieri and heroin-smoking nephew Christopher Moltisanti — have chemistry? Largely, yes. They’re unarguably charismatic. But there’s something about their clashing styles — Imperioli: reflective, chummy, urbane; Schirripa: loud, abrasive, choppy (think Donald Trump yelling into a duff pay phone) — that can grate at first.

It’s not always a big problem. If anything, it’s Schirripa’s adherence to the New Jersey ‘goomba’ stereotype that makes for the podcast’s funniest moments — intentional or otherwise. In the podcast world, for example, it’s common for the hosts to plug sponsors directly, rather than cutting away to premade ads. Which in this case means the larger-than-life Schirripa extolling the virtues of Bose headphones in the exact manner of a mafia goon pushing a dodgy insurance policy. An in-joke? I’m not sure. Either way, it’s the first time I’ve been intimidated by a sales pitch.

This week Imperioli and Schirripa watch ‘College’, perhaps the most acclaimed episode in Sopranos history. It’s the one where Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini, takes his daughter to visit prospective colleges in New England only to have a chance encounter with a former associate- turned-supergrass. It’s exceptional television, with hardly a second of screen time wasted.

The podcast, on the other hand, takes slightly longer to cut to the chase, beginning instead with the hosts reminiscing about their Hollywood glory days. Thankfully, what could otherwise make for pretty monotonous radio instead descends into juicy score-settling.

Perhaps that’s another advantage to using actors past their professional prime: they’re not afraid to dish the dirt (in this case with Schirripa making some genuinely bruising — and suitably profane — allegations against Robert De Niro and Werner Herzog).

It’s celebrity gossip reimagined by David Mamet — and it’s gold.

Having played defamation chicken for 15 minutes or so, they turn to the episode itself, offering a real-time recap of everything that happens. Their reflections are interesting enough (I enjoyed Schirripa calling one character ‘as slick as snot’) but there’s little here you won’t have seen for yourself. As far as insider info goes, only one admission really stopped me in my tracks: that Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano — jowled and haggard like an out-of-work loan shark — was meant to be in his early thirties. As Schirripa might say, you gotta be shittin’ me.

If you want evidence that rewatch podcasts aren’t just a quarantine fad, look to Office Ladies, the semi-official recap podcast for the American version of The Office. When it launched last year, it entered a marketplace already crowded with fan-produced efforts (there’s even one delivered entirely in the whispery ASMR style believed by some to induce a powerful trance-like state). Within weeks it was one of the top podcasts in America — perhaps unsurprising given that its parent show, a gentle and largely family-friendly sitcom, happens to be the single most viewed series on Netflix. And Netflix is just the beginning. It turns out there’s a whole subculture of Office obsessives out there. Whenever the show’s hosts — Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey — reveal something new about the sitcom, it ends up re-reported on fan-driven news websites. It will likely be added to Dunderpedia, a clone Wikipedia dedicated entirely to The Office (and maintained by superfan volunteers). After lockdown, it might become a question on one of the dozens of Office-themed pub quizzes you can find across America.

We’re living in a media ecosystem in which it’s easier than ever to make new content and discover talent, yet more of us are instead choosing to burrow ever deeper into what we already know, mining beloved shows for another fix. Rewatch podcasts might well be big business, but what do they say about our appetite for new cultural experiences?

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