Review: “Welcome to Night Vale” The show that makes you go, ok so I guess that’s a thing…
Original feature in ODO 66: Where Does Chocolate Milk Come From?
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.
- In the early seasons, the story arc that flows through between episodes really adds depth to the world
- Excellent writing and character development over the years.
- Cecil’s voice and narrative style draws you in and makes you trust him, until you learn that he may have a little bit of bias.
- The complexity of the story after 8 years of building is amazing. So many things have changed in this world since the first season that it’s hardly even the same world anymore. *wink*
- The little running gags and dark humor will have you questioning what you just heard while also laughing your head off at the absurdity.
- It’s got a taste of Lovecraft inspiration, but not directly .
- The original musical score by “Disparition” sets the tone perfectly.
- You really can’t just jump in at any time. You’ve gotta go all the way back to the start.
- The “weather” segments are very “hit or miss.”
- There are way too many ads at the start of each episode. (I know it’s shitty to complain about this, but after a while it gets really annoying to listen to.)
- The later seasons start dragging out and become difficult to follow.
- The main storyline in later seasons is less cohesive. It is obvious in the storytelling when the writers stopped focusing on this show.
First a little back story…
If I am going to start revisiting podcasts that I’ve featured in the past, I feel like I should probably start with one of the first podcasts that I really became a fan of. When I first got into podcasting, I just wanted to find something interesting to listen to. So I did like most of you probably did and I started browsing the categories in my podcast app. I figured I can’t go wrong with comedy, so I stated perusing that category. Listed among all of the hundreds of comedians interviewing comedians podcasts, I kept seeing this purple logo that said “Welcome To Night Vale.” When I read the description, “a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale,” it honestly sounded boring. Why would I want to listen to some small town community radio updates? Pass. But it just kept popping up everywhere I looked. So I looked a little harder at some of the episode titles and descriptions. “There is No Part 1: Part 2,” “Faceless Old Woman” and such, and it definitely got my attention. So I jumped in with the previously mentioned “part 2” and was left with a whole lot of “what the fuck am I listening to?” I imagine that is most people’s thought after they’ve gotten about 5 minutes in to their first listen to Night Vale. I actually ended up listening back to the episodes just before that one, thinking that I missed something important, but then I remembered the name of the episode, “There is No Part 1: Part 2.” So I went all the way back to the pilot episode and started working my way through until I got caught up. It’s still confusing as all hell…
And now our feature presentation…
At it’s simplest,”Welcome to Night Vale” is a twice monthly broadcast chronicling the goings on of a small desert community. There are traffic updates, sports reports, the community calendar, the obligatory sponsor breaks, and of course the weather.
A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.
These are the words, so calmly spoken by the incomparable Cecil Palmer, that greet you in the pilot episode of “Welcome to Night Vale”. An accurate and oh so insufficient description of the world you are about to step in to. In this world where, “every conspiracy theory is a reality.” Where dogs are not permitted in the dog park. A faceless old woman secretly lives in all of our homes. And a literal five headed dragon can run for mayor, even though he is being investigated for insurance fraud. And even this expanded description of the world of Night Vale doesn’t even scratch the surface of the twisted world in this podcast.
If you are into borderline horror fantasy stories, this will 100% be your jam. The detailed descriptions of the invisible spiders crawling on every surface of the room you are currently sitting in is more than a little unsettling. And how the faceless old woman who secretly lives in all of our homes knows everything about everybody all at the same time is both disturbing and silly. Because in Night Vale, every creepy thing is balanced out by something equally humorous. The faceless old woman may have replaced your tooth paste with calking but “what’s the wifi password?”
And the faceless old woman is just one of a couple dozen, how else can I say this, dark and zany characters that inhabit this town, the neighboring community of Desert Bluffs, and the mysterious desert other world that can only be reached through the dog park. Each character, from Steve Carlsberg, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five headed dragon, to Tamika Flynn, the militant teen leader of the summer reading program, intern turned mayor, Dana Cardinal, and even the Glow Cloud get rather complex character arcs over the series 8 year run.
And therein lies the biggest strength of “Welcome to Night Vale.” The characters in the world are so well written and voice acted that you really do have a pretty solid understanding of who they are, what their motivations are, and how they may behave in a given situation. Carlos will always side with the science. The city council will always go on vacation whenever the going gets tough. Steve Carlsberg will always see through the crazy world he lives in and do what’s best for his family.
Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor did an amazing job of establishing this world and all of its notable inhabitants’ personalities while also leaving their physical appearances almost completely up to the imaginations of the listeners. With exception to Kevin’s smile and Carlos’ teeth and haircut, (curse you Telly the barber) there are very few physical details ever mentioned.
That’s about the only detail left unsaid actually. Most other things are described in horrific detail. Whether it’s the faceless old woman recalling the exact color and texture of the mold on the bottom of the crisper drawer in the fridge, Cecil describing the teeth and gore that cover the walls of the Desert Bluffs community radio station, or whatever the hell a Strex-Pet is, you’ll have those images burned into your psyche for some time. Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor have absolutely mastered the art of theater of the mind.
Of course, it’s not all in what you see or not. The way the season arching stories are peppered throughout the news segments in each broadcast is a thing of beauty. The way the appearance of a stray dog in one episode could lead to a near armageddon by the end of the season is mind boggling. Or how a tiny city underneath lane 5 of the bowling alley in season 1 could become a major turning point in season 5. And don’t get me started on the multiple timelines and multiple universes. It is such a complicated world that it absolutely has needed about 5 years to put it together.
But it’s not all sunshine from a smiling god
I say 5 years when it’s been going for 8 because that’s really when the other shoe dropped. Right around the end of the 5th season the stories started to fall a little flat. The format shifted from telling the stories of Night Vale and the characters in it, to just telling isolated stories of particular characters with little to do with the larger world. Now I’m all for learning more about the different characters, but I don’t need a multi part series about the football coach and his relationship with a person from an alternate dimension Night Vale. And later when they went back to bigger picture stories about the town as a whole, the story itself introduced so many new characters that you don’t know or have any attachment to that you really don’t care about what’s going on. At this point there’s so much emotion built into the established cast that I don’t care how tragic this new person’s story is, I’m not interested. Most of the established characters have been put on the back burner for occasional cameos but very little substance. As someone who has been listening for 5 years, I want to know what’s happened to Hiram. I’ve had enough of time travel shenanigans. Where’s Kevin? The blood space war is better left as a running background reference, not a main season plot.
Honestly, I just feel like, as the show has grown, and the writers have created other podcasts, they have really lost a lot of focus on Night Vale. I will say that I am a fan of some of their other work, but it just seems like the passion for Night Vale isn’t really there anymore. It’s almost like they just keep doing it for the paycheck since it’s the flagship show on the network. I still enjoy the show, but it doesn’t have nearly the same emotion and energy to it that it had even 2 years ago.
And now, the weather…
You can’t talk about “Welcome to Night Vale” without mentioning the music. Night Vale would not be Night Vale without the original score by “Disparition.” Both in the regular episodes and in the live shows, it doesn’t feel like you are there without his music. His score is equally important to the feeling of Night Vale as Cecil’s voice. But that’s not the only music in Night Vale.
Every community radio broadcast has “the weather,” which in this case means a music break. Every episode features a song from an independent artist across a multitude of styles. It could be Christian rock, blue grass, rap, country or anything in between. Which is both a plus and a minus for the show. The quality of the songs are very hit or miss. That may be just a matter of the varying styles that are represented. Realistically, with the variety of artists that are featured, you’re bound to like some and not others. There are some people who just skip the weather by default, but I at least give each song a chance. You never know, you may find something you never thought you would like. I will say, for me, I find more misses than hits, but that’s just my opinion based on my musical taste. Your milage may vary.
In short (Too late)
“Welcome to Night Vale” is a dark macabre comedy that pulls you in with a soothing voice and beautiful music. The characters of both the town itself and it’s inhabitants are fleshed out in such a way to give the seasonal story arcs serious emotional weight in the early seasons. But over the last couple of years, the writing has begun to falter.
I’m not going to go as far as to say it’s bad, but it’s not as strong as it once was. As much as I want to blame the writers’ other projects for taking their focus away from this show, ultimately I think the real issues is just time. 8 years is a long time for a scripted audio drama podcast. There are only so many stories to tell before it gets stale. Sad to say, I think they need to be working towards a final ending sooner rather than later.