I'm going to take a brief break from my wildly successful (What? I can dream.) series of posts on fanfiction to write a review of my favorite piece of currently-happening storytelling, Welcome to NightVale. Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast that takes the form of a fictional local community radio broadcast. Here's the description from the website:
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.
Turn on your radio and hide.Welcome to Night Vale is set in a little town which is probably located somewhere in the Southwest, “a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” The podcast is surreal, funny, a bit creepy, and features excellent voice-acting. The best way I've found to describe it is if Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett got together and wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone. The first few episodes are a little kitschy, kind of standard surrealist strangeness, but as the show progresses it becomes a genuinely compelling, intelligent, masterfully done piece of storytelling.
Long story short, I think Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best things happening right now, in any format of storytelling, anywhere.
Yeah, I know that's a really serious claim, and obviously it's just my opinion, but there are a lot of reasons that I feel the way I do.
First of all, the storytelling and character development is amazing. Cecil, the host of the radio show and our narrator, is an amazing character. At the beginning he's a bit disconnected from the audience, the sonorous voice that tells us the calendar and announces the weather, but as the show progresses more of his character peeks through the radio script, and we get to see him as a person. I absolutely love Cecil, and I look forward to learning more about him with each episode. He's an unreliable narrator, but not in the Poe way, just in the way that every person will tell the story from their own point of view. The fact that a great majority of the show is told from his point of view can lead to some interesting moments where the audience suddenly sees things (events, other characters) from a different point of view. Many characters that start out as background characters develop into fully-fleshed people as the show progresses. Really, even if the plot weren't as great as it is, the characters alone could carry this show.
Luckily for us, that isn't the case, and the plot of WTNV is absolutely amazing. While the early episodes are mostly one-off, monster of the week type episodes, a larger underlying story starts to take shape as the show progresses, gradually growing in importance and depth. There are moments where I have been literally sitting on the edge of my seat, staring intensely into space, listening to the story and holding my breath. Not only is it incredibly compelling and often suspenseful, the plot is also steeped in social commentary and philosophical ideas. Issues of community, capitalism and economic worth, the value of human life, the nature of love, all of these are explored through the intense action of the plot. It's hard for me to describe without using any spoilers, but trust me, this is one of the most interesting stories you've heard in a long time, and somehow it just keeps getting better.
There are a lot of great stylistic elements in WTNV that I think deserve recognition. The use of surrealism is totally convincing, while also managing to be both funny and creepy, often at the same time. More than that, by making surrealism the everyday life of the town, the writers can make what we see to be everyday occurrences seem highly surreal. The weirdness of the show, then, is often used to highlight the weirdness of everyday life. Similarly, the traditional symbolism of shadow vs sunlight is often reversed, with shadows being comforting and safe, while sunlight is harsh, bright, and revealing. It's a great reversal, and is done so convincingly that I didn't even realize it was happening until a good way in. Again, changing these symbols can highlight the disturbing elements in what we usually consider good. WTNV isn't just a great story with relatable characters, it's a really finely crafted work of art.
|The upcoming novel. I'm so excited!|
Welcome to Night Vale has an incredibly diverse set of characters and voice actors. Recently, the book world (or at least the parts of it I care to frequent) has been pushing for more diversity in reading, publishing, and award lists. Well, WTNV may not be a book, but it's definitely got the diversity you're looking for. In the very first episode, a new man moves to Night Vale, and Cecil immediately falls in love with him. From that first episode on, there are main characters who are women, non-binary, LGBTQ, disabled, voiced by actors of color (and therefore often assumed by the audience to be people of color, almost none of the characters are actually physically described in canon), etc. All of this representation never feels “forced” or “like you're just checking off boxes,” as so many critics of diversity often claim will be the case. Each character is natural, a human being with motivations and feelings, not a stereotype or a box to fill. The best part is that diversity seems to be a defining feature of the town. When Cecil falls in love with a man, or when a young girl uses a wheelchair, or when a different young girl is born with a body consisting only of an adult man's left hand, no-one attacks them for it. They're all just citizens of Night Vale. Sometimes it's nice to have a story with diverse characters that doesn't focus on tragedy or bigotry.
Welcome to Night Vale has the complete package. It has great characters that are believable people the audience can try to understand and become involved with. It has a riveting plot that will have you begging for the next episode. It has really deep, subtle social commentary, which is aided by the highly crafty use of stylistic elements and the diversity of both characters and cast. WTNV has been going strong for years, and I can honestly tell you that it is only getting better with time. Not only is the podcast amazing, they also have a book coming out in October. If you take no other recommendation from me, please, go listen to Welcome to Night Vale. I promise you won't regret it.