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'Dead Eyes,' but tons of heart: This small podcast is among the year's best

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every year brings all sorts of great new podcasts, and 2022 is no different. Here's podcast critic Nick Quah's take on what kind of year it's been. He's also going to tell us about some of his favorite podcasts of the year.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: 2022 was a decent year for podcasting with no shortage of new shows worth the time investment. Audio documentary devotees, for example, were well-served by strong releases like "Will Be Wild" and Rachel Maddow's "Ultra." And fans of celebrity chat podcasts have more to enjoy as always. Meanwhile, true crime heads had at least one clear knockout this year in a show called "Bone Valley." But when I look back at the podcasts that spoke to me the most this year, I found myself gravitating towards the smaller and scrappier - projects that, above all else, felt alive with creative spark.

One fantastic example comes in the form of a short fiction piece called "His Saturn Return." Best described as a cosmic coming-of-age tale, the hourlong audio drama follows a self-centered space alien named Duran Durag, played by Sai Sion, who also wrote the piece. He's put through a series of intergalactic trials designed to help him grow up and get over himself. If that description makes "His Saturn Return" seem a little out there, well, that's because it very much is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HIS SATURN RETURN")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) Duran. Duran. Duran, can you hear me?

SAI SION: (As Duran Durag) Oh - ah - what? huh?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) You are currently adrift in the fractal node. It is on the astral plane. Here, your mind is one with reality. Travel here is disorienting. Your mission has already begun. And you are in grave danger.

SION: (As Duran Durag) Wait, in the night? Like, from what?

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As D.J. Saturn) Those.

SION: (As Duran Durag) Oh. Oh, oh. Oh. Whoa. That was a comet. That was a comet, right? It was - the size of it, just...

QUAH: Vibrant, energetic and terribly fun, "His Saturn Return" makes a virtue of excess, evoking a dizzying array of influences that spans "E.T.," "RuPaul's Drag Race" and the works of Douglas Adams. The piece was released through a podcast called "The 11th," a series specifically designed to publish one-off works that can't be easily placed in a genre and might not be financially feasible as a stand-alone release. Unfortunately, "The 11th" came to an end this year, closing out its run of experimentation. It will be missed.

Few things in this world are more delicious than gossip. And so it is no small thing to encounter a show that bottles the feeling of snooping around in other people's business. "Normal Gossip" is that show. Hosted by the writer Kelsey McKinney and produced by Alex Sujong Laughlin, the podcast features a deceptively simple structure. In each episode, McKinney presents an extensive, anonymous piece of gossip to a guest, who is made to react as the tale twists and turns and spirals out of control, as the very best pieces of gossip tend to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NORMAL GOSSIP")

KELSEY MCKINNEY: So she and Craig - she drags Craig back to Southeast Texas. They're smarter this time. They rent a car from the airport.

BOBBY FINGER: Alamo.

MCKINNEY: They arrive at the house, and Larry is there.

LINDSAY WEBER: Oh.

MCKINNEY: Not only is Larry there; Larry is in the living room in, like, a bathrobe over, like, a white tank top and boxer shorts. Larry is, like...

FINGER: Yeah, he is.

MCKINNEY: ...Holding his toothbrush.

FINGER: Yeah, he is. Uh-huh.

WEBER: So Larry's psychotic (ph).

MCKINNEY: Larry is wearing their father's house shoes.

WEBER: Larry's like...

FINGER: Uh-huh. Yep.

MCKINNEY: Larry is now living in the guesthouse.

FINGER: Oh, my God.

WEBER: All right. Well, Larry's a scammer.

FINGER: So Larry lives in the house that they lived in when they were doing the renovations.

MCKINNEY: Exactly. Exactly.

FINGER: OK, OK.

WEBER: I wanted them to be in love. And it turns out that's just really - that's optimistic. This is...

FINGER: Larry's just a grifter.

WEBER: Scammer vibes. Yeah.

QUAH: The trick of "Normal Gossip" is its focus on the banal. Each story is sourced from, and is ultimately about, ordinary people. What every good gossip knows, of course, is that banality doesn't equate to boredom. After all, the best stuff that shines in group chats everywhere tend to be the kind of things that can quite literally happen to anybody - from dating mishaps to social scene meltdowns to a horrifically embarrassing faux pas, all of which feature on the show. In an era where the power of celebrity is all-consuming, "Normal Gossip" feeds on a more democratic insight - unbelievable things happen to normal people, too.

There's nothing normal about my pick for the best podcast of the year, though, which requires some setup to explain. Around the turn of the millennium, a young actor named Connor Ratliff was cast in a tiny role on "Band Of Brothers," the award-winning HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks. But you wouldn't find him on the show because shortly before filming his scene, Ratliff was asked to audition in front of Hanks. He ended up losing the part, later learning it was because Hanks, famously the nicest guy in show business, thought he had dead eyes. In early 2020, Ratliff, now a working actor in his 40s, launched a podcast about that experience, which he calls, well, "Dead Eyes."

The show started out as a seemingly quixotic quest to figure out what Hanks meant by Ratliff having dead eyes, which might sound like a bitter adventure - except that it isn't. Indeed, as the show went on, it became apparent that what Ratliff really wanted to do was produce thoughtful interviews of friends and acquaintances about the tenuous nature of building a life in show business, which is often filled with disappointment, heartbreak and the ghost of what could have been.

Earlier this year, Ratliff got answers. After 30 episodes, he finally scored an interview with Hanks. And the resulting conversation didn't just turn out to be a satisfying capstone for Ratliff's journey, but also a thoroughly charming interview with Hanks, which saw the older actor imparting wisdom and some existential comfort to his younger counterpart.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAD EYES")

TOM HANKS: Yes, you were told I thought you had dead eyes. That's about as concrete a statement as anybody is ever going to have from anybody.

CONNOR RATLIFF: Yeah.

HANKS: But I was - I thought, well, in - I go right to the cheesy, melodramatic narrative, which is like, oh, OK, so this is going to be essentially ongoing "Poison Pen Letter." But it's not. Because you - we, the people in the know, the people who live on Fountain Avenue, as I like to say, know that there's no room for that.

RATLIFF: Yeah.

HANKS: You can't go there. If you do, it's the death of moving forward.

QUAH: It's uncommon for a podcast to land such a resolution and even more rare for a project with such a prolonged conceit to maintain a strong sense of heart throughout. "Dead Eyes" is a miracle, and I'll be thinking about this show for a long time.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture. You can find his review of his favorite podcasts of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Michael Imperioli. He became famous for his role on "The Sopranos" as the young, impulsive gangster Christopher Moltisanti. Imperioli is one of the stars of the second season of HBO's Emmy award-winning series "The White Lotus." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELI DEGIBRI'S "REMEMBER")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELI DEGIBRI'S "REMEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Quah