Rail Gaze Review: Surprisingly Awesome

When I first heard that Gimlet Media was releasing a podcast named Surprisingly Awesome that would attempt to make ostensibly boring topics seem awesome, I rolled my eyes. The idea of teasing out the kernel of an engaging narrative from the sea of science, politics and culture surrounding us has been implicit in the structure of countless great podcasts, from Radiolab to Song Exploder. Naming it explicitly as your show’s title felt like telling someone a joke and then stopping afterwards to make sure they got it.

It turns out that the writers took the show’s premise to a greater extreme than I expected. The episode titles form a laundry list of everything that might make a bored ten-year-old fear for their sanity: “Mold,” “Concrete,” “Interest Rates,” “Adhesives” and even the dreaded “Broccoli.”

The topic names are sufficiently vague that it’s hard to tell in advance where the writers will go with their subject matter. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the show is hearing the topic and wondering exactly what story the episode will tell to try to make it interesting.

Does the show succeed in its goal of making these topics awesome? Sometimes. Turns out that no amount of interviews with Ford manufacturers can make adhesives interesting. The psychological study of boredom, on the other hand, has plenty of worthwhile things to say.

Unfortunately, many of the episodes take a “throw everything on the wall and see if it will stick” approach, which means that even the episodes that have legitimately awesome stories sometimes include dry stretches.

The show has a looser script than most of the shows Gimlet produces, and it pays off in the delightful chemistry between the two hosts. “Planet Money” co-host Adam Davidson is comfortable enough in front of the mic, but the real fun comes from Adam McKay, the director/screenwriter behind Anchorman, Talladega Nights and The Big Short.

Drawing upon his status as a writer of smash hit films, McKay takes it upon himself to represent the skeptical everyman listening at home, often to hilarious effect. In the very first minute of the show, for instance, McKay brings up the prospect of the show ending with one of the hosts still thinking the subject is boring, which Davidson says will not happen. “So even if my voice is disinterested, you’ll just pitch me up in post[-production]?” McKay responds.

All of Surprisingly Awesome’s best elements come together in “Mattresses,” possibly the show’s finest episode. The episode begins with a simple premise: McKay and producer Rachel Ward are trying to convince Davidson that he is taking too long to shop for a new mattress. The premise is personal enough to allow for some side-splitting banter, and it’s also focused enough to hold the story together as the hosts get kicked out of mattress stores, explore the history of sleep and try to pin down an answer from a loquacious sleep scientist.

For all its slow parts, Surprisingly Awesome has sufficient mayhem and thoughtfulness to make for a worthwhile listen. If nothing else, you’ll get enough surprising facts about concrete and mold to last you your next dozen parties.

Other great episodes:

“Tub Thumping”: Remember that song that went “I get knocked down/But I get up again” that got a lot of airplay in the 90s? Bet you didn’t know it was written by an anarchist commune bent on delivering a message of hope to the working class. This episode also features the first of many debates the Adams will have about the merits of capitalism. While not particularly insightful, these debates offer amusing glimpses into the personalities of the hosts.

“Broccoli”: The Adams use that vegetable you probably hated as a kid as a chance to wax philosophical about human nature.

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