Podcasts continue to grow in popularity, but many consumers still see the medium as limited to NPR Replays, long form interviews or niche fodder around sports or hobbies.  Over the last few years, podcasting has expanded to include an impressive roster of fictional shows, an interesting blend of 1920s-era radio dramas and modern styles of storytelling.

Some fiction podcasts can go beat for beat with the best stories on the screen or page, but often remain undiscovered gems. Probably because when you open your podcast player, you’re not thinking “audio Netflix.”  

Fiction podcasts might start appearing on the cultural map more as they’re turned into TV shows. Blockbuster NPR true crime property Serial is being adapted for HBO.  Elsewhere, everyone from Amazon Video to Bravo and FX are getting in on the podcast-to-TV show action.

If you have yet to discover fiction podcasts, here are some of the best productions going right now. If you love compelling stories with deep themes, put your Audible subscription on hold for a couple of months and dive in.

Homecoming (Gimlet Media)

Based on early reviews, don’t be surprised to see your social media feeds lit up with this psychological thriller, which released on Amazon Prime Friday. The e-commerce giant has already committed to a second season of the show, no surprise with Julia Roberts in the lead and prestigious direction from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail.

The podcast version, wh nich features voice work from Oscar Isaac (Star Wars, Ex Machina) Oscar-winner Catherine Ann Keener (Capote) and Friends‘ David Schwimmer, shouldn’t be considered second fiddle in any way to its small screen counterpart.

LORE

If you love American Horror Story and The Haunting of Hill House scaring you to the point of sleeping with the lights on, just wait until you’re driving on a lonely road with Lore coming through your speakers.

Lore creator and host Aaron Menke is the closest thing 2018 has to Edgar Allen Poe. Unlike most shows on this list, which rely on multiple voice actors and plenty of soundscape to build a world, Lore is just a guy reading scary stories over foreboding background music. But that’s a bit like saying LeBron James is just a guy who throws a sphere at a hoop.

In what is likely the most embarrassing moment of my 2018, I actually screamed when a neighbor walked up behind me in our building’s laundry room while I was listening to Lore through my headphones. There’s something about the audio format that creates a sense of dread a screen can’t touch, and Lore is second to none in that department.

The Bright Sessions

A fictional podcast about a New York City therapist who sees teenage superheroes, The Bright Sessions sounds like something that would slot well on a Tuesday night on the CW. But there’s something much smarter going on here.

Bright may be an audio podcast, but it’s earned comparisons to the acclaimed NBC series Friday Night Lights. Just like the latter was a football show really about everything besides, Bright is about way more than capes and tights.  You don’t need to love DC or Marvel to be sucked into these unexpectedly relatable coming-of-age tales.

Sandra (Gimlet)

Just before lead character Helen steps into a job interview with an Elon Musk type technology billionaire, the executive admin instructs Helen to lie “on every answer, or not at all. Just once never works.” What starts out as a narrative about a woman trying to break free of a dysfunctional ex-husband and rediscover herself quickly dives into something more twisted in this audial psychological thriller.

With top-notch voice acting, including Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Ali Shawcat (Arrested Development) and Ethan Hawke (Training Day) in the lead roles, it’s baffling Sandra hasn’t received the press it deserves.

Limetown

The only bad thing about this whodunnit narrative, which focuses on a “research community” tucked in the backwoods of Kentucky, is the frustrating length between seasons. The series debuted in the summer of 2015 and season two didn’t drop until Halloween of this year.

The less you know going into Limetown, the better. Season one ends with one of the most enthralling cliffhangers across any medium. Don’t let the upcoming Facebook Watch TV series starring Jessica Beil deter you from diving into the source material.



Wolverine: The Long Night

Even if cape-and-cowl fatigue has has started to wear on your movie and TV tastes, you may still fall in love with the bleak world of Marvel’s first fictional podcast. It’s an experience much closer to classic X-Files-style sci-fi/horror than anything the comic giant has released on the big screen or Netflix.

Despite everyone’s favorite cigar-chomping mutant bearing the name of the show, Logan barely shows up in the first five episodes of Wolverine: The Long Night. This leaves plenty of room to explore a series of murders in a remote Alaskan village, pitting local authorities against FBI investigators in a case that could point to the town’s richest resident, or something more sinister.

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