If you spend any time on Tumblr besides looking at blogs like Skeletor Is Love (which is an amazing blog, by the way), you’ve probably seen a lot of people talking about something called Welcome to Night Vale. If you’re not in the know, you’re probably wondering why everyone is going on about perfect and beautiful Carlos, Intern Dana, an unapproachable dog park, or the lights above Arby’s, among other things. If you regularly listen to podcasts, you might be wondering where it came from and why it’s suddenly at the top of the most downloaded list.
Allow me, dear reader, to enlighten you.
Welcome to Night Vale is a production by New York company/writing collective Commonplace Books. It’s a bi-monthly podcast that takes place in the fictional small desert town of Night Vale. Night Vale is like most small towns. Sleepy, full of a strange cast of characters, a strangely bureaucratic city government, and a small civilization living under lane 5 at the local bowling alley… Among other things…
Without giving too much away in the intro, here are six reasons why you should add this show to your podcast library.
1.) It’s NPR mixed Twin Peaks and Gravity Falls with a splash of Parks and Recreation – Welcome to Night Vale is done in the style of a community radio show, with event listings, traffic reports, and commentary on local news. It would be kind of boring if it wasn’t for the fact that Night Vale is a town where all the dark and strange things happen. There’s a dog park in Night Vale that no one but the Hooded Figures are allowed to enter, a five headed dragon was arrested for insurance fraud and is interested in running for mayor, a sentient glow cloud is the head of the school board, and there’s a local old woman who has two angels named Erika living in her home. That’s all just the tip of the iceberg.
It could all be rather frightening too without our cool and collected host Cecil (played by New York actor Cecil Baldwin). With a smooth voice that could fit on any NPR show, Cecil makes the weird and spooky sound normal and rather fascinating. Of course, that doesn’t mean our host can’t get scared by station management, or show his love for a new in town scientist.
Which brings me to our second reason…
2.) Cecil is queer and it isn’t a big deal – In the first episode, Cecil talks about a team of scientists that have come into town to study the strangeness that occurs within Night Vale. The one that catches our dear narrator’s attention is Carlos, the lead scientist that Cecil describes as “beautiful,” “perfect” and that he “fell in love instantly.”
Cue the awwwws.
Over the next year, Carlos is often the subject of Cecil’s broadcasts and continually the object of Cecil’s affections. And it’s not a big deal. Cecil doesn’t struggle crushing on another man or lament if his crush is straight. He just continues crushing and being oblivious to what Carlos contacts him about for the next year. Station Management doesn’t seem to mind either, except when he’s getting off track and not giving enough of the news.
Plus, the year’s worth of buildup is paid off beautifully, even if it does punch you in the heart at first.
3.) Racism isn’t tolerated – Besides Carlos being described as dark-skinned and one of Old Woman Josie’s angels being “black,” there’s really no physical descriptors or races given to any of the characters.
Well, minus one.
One of the characters that Cecil talks about regularly is the Apache Tracker, which Cecil is always quick to remind the listener that this guy is a white man wearing an offensive and inaccurate Native American headdress. No matter what he’s doing, Cecil always ends up using words like “jerk” and “asshole” when describing him. Even after an incident where he turns into an actual Apache by some force of magic, he’s still described as “a racist embarrassment.”
In a culture that’s always quick to defend people like that as expressing themselves versus appropriating something they don’t understand, it’s nice that a character like that is constantly called out on his bullshit.
Plus, the fancasts where Johnny Depp as Tonto is the Apache Tracker? Brilliant.
4.) The fandom is super creative – With a work that’s based in an audio medium that doesn’t have a lot of physical descriptors (because you’re supposed to know everyone in this town and already know what they look like), there’s a lot of opportunity for the imagination to run wild when imagining the world of Night Vale.
And oh, the fandom has.
Springing up from the Hannibal fandom during the hiatus, Welcome to Night Vale has gained a rabid and passionate fandom that creates beautiful art, amazing fan mixes and fan fiction, and headcanons that could blow your mind. It’s impossible to go into the Welcome To Night Vale tag on Tumblr without seeing something awesome.
As for my personal headcanons, Pawnee, IN and Gravity Falls, OR are sister cities, Carlos used to work for Aperture Science, Intern Dana is muslim, Old Woman Josie used to keep Zorp as a pet and Kevin from Desert Bluffs is one of the horrors from The Cabin In The Woods. You probably didn’t want to know that, but I felt like sharing anyway.
5.) The show is both funny and legitimately terrifying – While the show is presented as a community radio show, there are several parts of each broadcast that are extremely funny. The first one that comes to mind is the PSA about alligators in the first episode. Much of the humor resides in both Cecil’s deadpan and occasionally sarcastic delivery and just straight up dark humor. I guess you have to have a sense of humor when the most terrifying day of the year is Street Cleaning Day.
There are parts where the show does get extremely creepy and terrifying though. Cecil’s confrontation with Station Management and the two Sandstorm episodes genuinely made me feel creeped out and worried for our narrator. There’s a definite Lovecraftian influence on the series and thank the gods it came out in the creepy.
6.) It’s shining a light on a side of podcasting that usually isn’t seen – With some of the earliest forms of entertainment in the 20th century being radio serials, it’s surprising that there aren’t more podcasts that take a fictional spin.
Or at least, not ones that are well known.
Looking at the top 100 podcasts on iTunes, Night Vale seems to be the only one that seems to have a narrative. There are comedy podcasts, yes, but only two seem to be parodies of some sort. Most of the others are talk shows and most spots in the podcast lists are similar to that, but in their own genres. NPR takes a lot of that cake as well.
With a podcast that has a narrative, I hope that it can inspire others to do the same and for fans of the show to seek out podcasts that do as well. Because it really is a (currently) mostly unexplored avenue for fiction.
Well, not in this current time. Time travel is legal in Night Vale, y’know.
It’s a three-fer this week. Come back on Friday for a reflection on a comic I’m really into right now.