Audio drama queen

Cover artwork by Vanessa Applegate

Content warning: Not safe for work.

Content warning: This article steals one of Reverend Christopher J Garcia’s trademark rhetorical flourishes, namely, blathering on about things the article isn’t about before getting to the point.

Content warning: When it finally gets to the point, the subject of discussion may contain [REDACTED TO AVOID SPOILERS].

Content warning: Everything might actually be a spoiler with regards to the subject being discussed.

Content warning: Here’s the content. Well, the meandering. Then the content.

I miss the days when the friends I shared a house with and I all worked the second shift. Our shifts started at 3pm or 4pm, we got home around 11pm or midnight. We didn’t watch television, because nothing watchable was on over-the-air broadcast channels in Milwaukee after midnight. There was a great radio station, though, and we stayed up listening to “classic” rock (late 60s to early 80s) on the radio until it was time to go to sleep. I missed a lot of early 90s television. I listened to a lot of SF and fantasy themed music, because prog rock.

A few years back, at the beginning of the decade, my husband Kevin’s parents hit a rough spot (that’s a euphemism, people). This resulted in regular travel up to Redding and back around once a month. That’s a four hour drive. Each way. With no television, obviously. Sure, we had the iPod on random, shuffling tens of thousands of songs, but it’s still four hours. This was a regular thing until they died, and continued for around two years afterwards, as we worked to settle their estate. Shortly after Kevin’s parents died, this thing called DashCon happened, and these guys who did a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale got stiffed by the con. The story was the conrunner fail story of the year. The Welcome to Night Vale crew getting stiffed wasn’t even the biggest part of the story. So we started listening to Welcome to Night Vale. It marked out the drive time much better than random music.

Bingeing four hours of Welcome to Night Vale at a time was a bit wearing. Sure, it was darkly funny and beautifully creepy, but I started to look for other audio drama podcasts. The Leviathan Chronicles were more of an audiobook with a bit of character voice acting, and not particularly funny. The Harry Strange Radio Drama wasn’t really that good an emulation of radio drama. Both fell to the wayside, more for their flaws than their lack of humor. We fell out of love with Welcome to Night Vale when Cecil and Carlos’ relationship started getting creepy in ways that weren’t beautiful. Still, the whole Desert Bluffs storyline was disturbingly funny. We started listening to Our Fair City, a strange little thing that sounded like a Lovecraft pastiche set in a weird city. With mole people. The start is rough. Really rough.

What really caught our attention was The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a collection of radio drama styled serials. A space western. A paranormal detective series. A children’s superhero series. A riches-to-rags hobo adventure. All written by a pair of TV writers in their spare time. All performed live, monthly, in LA, at a nightclub theater, by a bunch of TV utility players and a few famous people. It’s hilarious. It outlasted the many trips to settle Kevin’s parents’ estate. It ate up several years of our long-distance drivel time.

You must, absolutely must, listen to it. All 250 episodes.

And then we ran out of episodes. We restarted Our Fair City, and found it to be worth enduring the slow start. It wasn’t a Lovecraft pastiche. It wasn’t an HG Wells pastiche. It was even weirder and funnier. And the worldbuilding. Oh, the worldbuilding. And, holy mother of god, the ending. The ending. But we ran that out too. Fuckers. HartLife NFP is producing a gothic horror series now, but we haven’t started it.

So we started looking for other things to listen to on the road. I think someone on Facebook mentioned a pair of audio dramas that featured queer characters: The Penumbra and DreamBoy.

(Yes, that’s what I’m here to write about.)

The Penumbra had just started its second season. Their first season was developed as an anthology show, and the production quality was shaky. It quickly coalesced around a space noir series about Juno Steele, a hard-boiled ex-cop private detective in Hyperion City (Mars) who always got the worst — and I mean worst — jobs and clients. Upon starting the second season, the team re-recorded the first “Juno Steele” story so new listeners could get hooked before enduring several episodes of iffy sound.

So Juno? Classic noir detective in every way. Juno is aided by his secretary, Rita, who oscillates between being an absolutely useless secretary and the most competent secretary ever. She makes Gilbert Gottfried seem calm and measured. Very much a classic type, dialed up to 11. He’s also aided by former friends and coworkers, most of whom hate him now. Also very classic. He’s often hampered by being distracted by a pretty face. In many cases, a homme fatale. An eminently capable, eminently seductive homme fatale. Very much a twist on the classic. But it’s in a domed city on Mars. Built on the ruins of ancient Martian civilization. Twisted and distorted by the failed utopian dreams of the explorers who paved the way for colonization. Downtrodden detective? Check. Trail of ex-friends and former coworkers? Check. Stereotypical secretary? Check. Attractive villains? Check. Dirty, terrible city? Check. What’s the last box it has to tick off? It is, of course, darkly funny in the world-weary manner of noir humor. So much sarcasm. So much Juno having no idea if he’s the smartest person in the room or not. So much Juno compensating with one-liners. So. Much. Rita.

If you’re looking for sexy comedy in a dark and dirty world where gender and sexuality are very fluid, Juno Steel is a winner. It’s totally worth putting up with the shabby production quality of those early episodes. But they ended up coalescing around two series, not just one. “Tales of the Second Citadel” is not a straight second-world epic fantasy. Pun totally intended.

Our heroes (and there are many) don’t just fight against swamp monsters menacing the Second Citadel. Marc of the Craftsman’s Quarter fights against his own order of knights, an order that keeps throwing roadblocks in the way of his knighthood because they can’t accept a paraplegic knight no matter how many times he passes their increasingly difficult tests. Sir Caroline fights sexism from clueless knights and homophobia from her own Queen. This is far less comic. The humor, where it can be found, is often much darker. But it’s smart. It’s very smart.

I could write about the one-offs in The Penumbra’s first season. “Coyote of the Painted Plains” is a lesbonic weird western that is pretty funny, but not SFnal. “Shaken” and “Home” are excellent horror stories, but not at all funny. I think that’s enough said about those. Now the show is just “Juno Steel” and “Tales of the Second Citadel”, and that’s just fine. We’re still listening. But since this is currently in production, we don’t have several years of backlogged episodes to get through: we need other things on deck too.

We heard about DreamBoy after we had started The Penumbra. It’s a Night Vale Presents production, so the quality has been top-notch from the first episode. A twentysomething musician from New York goes to house-sit for a friend in a Cleveland suburb, so he can work on his music in peace. Once he gets there he finds himself instead unmotivated, working a terrible job as a ride attendant at a terrible zoo, getting stoned, and cruising for dick on Grindr. It’s twistedly hilarious and unreal. It’s much more SFnal than that summary would suggest. It’s also even more pornographic than the summary suggests.

There’s an elderly homicidal zebra named Zoe, the showcase attraction at the terrible zoo. There’s a “Moons of Jupiter” themed rollercoaster at the terrible zoo, because of reasons. There’s a secret scientific lab. There are creepy girl scouts (who are not Girl Scouts). There’s an elderly woman who says “Howdy!” every morning. There is a wasp enthusiast at the greenhouse.

But that all might just be set dressing. Because Dane (our lead and narrator) is having weird erotic dreams involving a giant fish. And Luke (who is crashing in the house behind Dane’s) is having the same weird erotic dreams involving a giant fish. And Luke has a thing for really rough sex, and a bruise fetish. And Luke has a serious Instagram following of people who love his most excellent photos of the bruises he receives from his sex partners. And, in spite of having his own private shows of Luke getting fucked by semi-random men that he can watch across his back yard (yes, Luke knows, he’s established himself as a show-off), and a complicated relationship of his own with Luke, he’s still cruising Grindr for cock to suck in a secluded zoo bathroom.

Is this a darkly funny and filthy SF show? Is this absurdist porn? What’s with the moons of Jupiter? Why are creepy girl scouts and drag queens organizing fundraisers to save a murderous zebra? How does the giant fish fit into shared erotic dreams? I have absolutely no idea. But it’s definitely sleazy, sexy and absurd.

I have to say, I love The Penumbra because of how it turns classic genres on end. I love DreamBoy because it goes there. They’re all, for their own reasons, stories too edgy for television, and probably for even YouTube. DreamBoy is definitely too pornographic for YouTube. Hell, it’s too pornographic for Starz.

If you want some funny, celebratory, earnest, sexy queer stories, you need to start tuning into audio drama. Sure, these audio dramas aren’t always as polished as big studio entertainment. But they’re so cheap to produce and distribute, and the marketplace is so freewheeling, it’s where experimentation happens.

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