Reviews of Greater Boston
"Why you should so yourself a favor and listen to Greater Boston NOW."
I’m sitting in my bedroom in the partial darkness, my surroundings illuminated only by the fairy lights hanging around my bookcase, the music shuffling on my phone lands on Owl City’s Fireflies. I’m not sure if this means anything. It’s definitely not relevant to what I’m writing in any way, but I think unnecessary scene-setting is what fancy professional writers do, right? IDK *Shrug emoji* Oh well, now that we’re done with that; this is going to be a long, rambling, multi-sectioned love letter to the podcast Greater Boston by Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason AKA a criminally underrated audio drama and a diamond that has never been in the rough!!
Disclaimer: When I was about 80% done writing this review, I started having second thoughts about finishing it or sharing it anywhere because, I am generally very averse to sharing my feelings or my writing anywhere and opening myself up to the possibility of censure and negativity. And also, because I don’t think anyone would even take the time to read such a long piece. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is to show appreciation to independent content creators who bring such beautiful things into the world and allow us to enjoy them for free, and I realized that if I really want to thank the people who made something that left such an impression on me, then I must have some courage and some allow myself some vulnerability. And that this review is for the people behind the podcast as much as it is for me or for other fans! So, here are my deepest most rambling and often repetitive thoughts about GB, only very vaguely spoilery, and only partially edited because if I go through this one more time I doubt I’ll ever share it, so sorry in advance!
*How I started listening to Greater Boston
So, when I first started getting into podcasts, I would discover new ones by having strangers near me on the internet yell about them 62 times a day every day for a year until I finally caved and listened, it’s how I started listening to audio dramas back in 2013-2014, and it’s how I discovered most of the early shows I listened to.
That wasn’t actually the case for Greater Boston because it is not as popular in the fandom spaces I occupy as other equally fantastic podcasts. I’m not 100% sure why that is tbh, and that’s an error I’m hoping will be fixed soon!
Anyway, at the time I was binge-listening to 3 different SFF podcasts and I felt like I needed some tone change for a bit and I remembered GB which I assumed is set on Earth, and so, I started listening, not really sure what Greater Boston was about or what to expect other than a break from space drama!
I actually came across greater Boston last year on a blog archiving queer podcasts (shoutout to isthispodcastqueer on tumblr <3) which is where I’d been getting most of my podcast recommendations for a while!
*How I realized I was in love
Now the thing about Greater Boston is that it sort of sneaks up on you slowly and unexpectedly. Like, I will admit I was drawn in from episode 1, because it is that good, and even as things got more and more ridiculous (more on that later) in ways that sometimes frustrated me, there was always always something that compelled me to keep listening, to the point where I binged the entire first three seasons in about a week and a half even as I was still listening to the other three aforementioned podcasts.
But it wasn’t until I was done with the whole thing and found my heart feeling strangely empty and melancholic, in a way that only my favorite pieces of fiction ever managed to make me, that I realized just how deeply I had grown to care for this ridiculously marvelous work of art.
*Greater Boston is an indie podcast, but it doesn’t sound like it
So once I had gone through the whole podcast, I of course went on the typical googling spree to find out more about the show and when the next season would drop (I still don’t know when season 4 is coming out and at this point I’m too scared to ask) [Update: after writing this part, I found out that season 4 is coming sometime later this year]. Of course, that whole search was kind of abandoned when I found out one the most shocking things I’d ever learned about any podcast, and it’s that this is an indie production!!
Now, you won’t fully get this until you’ve listened to literally any episode of Greater Boston, but it has genuinely some of the highest production quality I’ve come across in indie AD, and it has that quality literally from the very beginning!
Like, no judgement at all of any other indie podcasts. Actually, mad respect to all podcasters who write/edit/act in and/or produce their own podcasts for little to no money, y’all are heroes and you’re making so many lives brighter (mine included).
But pretty much all podcasts I’ve ever heard, especially long running ones and including some of the current biggest names in indie AD, have a noticeable learning curve when it comes to all aspects of production, from writing to sound design and performance.
Except for Greater Boston.
This podcast starts off strong and it keeps getting stronger and better, and I’m genuinely still baffled by the fact that they apparently started off recording in one of their basements with blankets to muffle the sounds of traffic!!
*How Greater Boston does character development better than Disney
Now of course, as we’ve been seeing with much if not most of mainstream media recently, production quality means less than nothing without a soul. And let me tell you, if Greater Boston has got one thing (it’s actually got many things, but if it’s just got one thing), it’s got soul. And heart. And obvious passion on the part of the creators for the story they are telling and the characters they are creating to the point where you can’t help but get pulled in by it without even realizing it.
There’s been this trend in recent years of more and more people turning to indie movies, books, fanfiction & indie audio drama, because people are yearning for a taste of authenticity that’s been increasingly lacking in mainstream everything as Disney and Amazon and other mega corporations buy… the world and suck the joy out of it.
And I think what I adore about Greater Boston is that, even though it has a relatively large cast of characters compared to many other podcasts, it somehow manages to create individual, unique characters who have their own voice, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own rich history of joy and heartbreak that makes them who they are. And even though we almost always learn about those histories long after first meeting those characters, in retrospect, it still makes perfect sense in a way that makes you look back and say “ooh, that thing from 2.5 seasons back now makes sense in light of this recent information”.
And of course, if I’m talking about the brilliant character design in Greater Boston, I absolutely must spend some time waxing poetic about their brand of character development which I genuinely believe should be taught in class rooms and lecture halls everywhere.
Now, to understand what I mean exactly, let’s take a minute and imagine we live in the timeline where Marvel writers actually understand the concept of emotional continuity, Game of Thrones writers understand the difference between foreshadowing and actual character development, and Star Wars writers understand how human beings… work. Do you have a picture in your mind now of what those stories would’ve been like in this alternate universe?
These are like the most basic things we should expect from all authors across all forms of written/visual/audio media, but because we live in the dark timeline, these feel more like the kind of luxury the biggest mega media conglomerate in the world can’t afford, but independent, low budget productions not only manage to deliver but exceed them into the realm of excellent, high quality literature reminiscent of the literary greats of old who would have no place in today’s late-capitalist hellscape.
(Did any of that make sense? Sorry, I guess I’m still salty about some things whoops!!)
Now, aside from excelling over the disappointing mainstream, the way Greater Boston does character development is maybe my absolute favorite aspect of the show, how the characters’ histories and motivations slowly unravel over time is simply delicious, and I genuinely believe it is the thing that made me fall in love with this show without realizing it.
Because, looking back, it’s very easy for me to say that I care about every single one of the characters on this podcast (with some few exceptions, who are evil incarnate), from the main characters to Marlo, a man who I believe appeared in less than 5 episodes but I would do anything for him.
James Joyce once said “in the particular is contained the universal”.
It’s the kind of advice creative writing teachers everywhere tell their students, it’ also advice that not many writers manage to internalize or apply in their writing.
Danner and Van Dreason do an impeccable job of writing about the particular and making it feel universal in its specificity. I can genuinely say that I have very little in common with any of the characters of Greater Boston. I’m not American. I’ve never even been to America. I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not the mayor of a subway city. I have never been on a submarine looking for Atlantis. I’ve never been flooded by molasses. I’ve never tried gastromancy, in fact before learning about it here, I’d never heard of it. And yet, in listening to this podcast, I found myself relating to, sympathizing and empathizing with fictional characters who have been or have done those things.
Because in writing about these characters with some very unique life experiences, they manage to capture the beauty, pain and absurdity of the human condition in a way that is so universally relatable, it still haunts me all those months after first experiencing this story.
Greater Boston doesn’t shy away from dealing with serious issues, from politics and social justice to addiction, and as someone who usually shies away from stories about addiction and alcoholism, I would literally die for a certain alcoholic character on this show. Why? Because like every other character here, his alcoholism does not define him, it’s not his only known trait around which his whole storyline revolves; it’s something he struggles with, yes, and we get front row seats to that struggle, but we also get to know him as a human being first, a friend second, and an alcoholic last. We witness him triumph, we watch him fail and we watch him find strength in his loved ones to pull himself back together again, and there’s something very beautiful about that, and I just made myself tear up a bit writing this!!
And that is just one example of the brilliant character development to be found here, and I think I will stop now because if I don’t, I will end up writing full character analyses of all my favorites and this already very long review will quadruple in length at least!!
But I will just say this, Greater Boston is about human characters. Characters who are deliciously, perfectly imperfect, who make mistakes and mess up and let themselves and others down. Characters who try to be introspective, who are all trying to understand themselves and their places in this world, who try to learn from their mistakes and try to do better, characters who let life and circumstance lead them wherever, who then try to take control of their lives because they learn that they might have no control over what happens to them, but that they get to decide how they react to what happens to them. #YouDecide
*Interpersonal relationships from heaven
Now following from brilliant character development, we obviously also have to talk about how Greater Boston handles interpersonal relationships and, you guessed it, they do it brilliantly.
I don’t think I can do this point justice, given how long it’s been since I finished the podcast, but I will do my best. I’ve said above that GB is about wonderfully flawed characters, and that’s true, as a starting point. Because from each of those characters grows a complex web of connections to everyone around them from friends and family to coworkers to random strangers who are unknowingly connected in a hundred different ways.
And that’s another thing I adore about this podcast, it does have a huge cast of characters who at first seem to have very little in common other than where they live, but as the story unfolds, we learn alongside them just how much each of their lives are intertwined with each other.
But it’s about more than that, it’s also about friendship, and marriage and family and chosen family and how each of those relationships in our lives can in turn let us down or lift us up. It’s about people learning when to forgive and when not to. It’s about people owning up to their mistakes and working to make up for them. It’s about personal growth and interpersonal growth, and those beloved characters and relationships evolving through experience and hardship.
It’s about love and hope, even though the love and hope are covered in 37 layers of absurdity.
*Storytelling done right
Now, before I start fangirling about those 37 layers of absurdity, I must first talk about how the storytelling excels in Greater Boston. Personally, my measure of how good a story is, is how soon after I’m finished with it I want to experience it again. In this case, it was immediately after I was done with it that I wanted to start it all over again with everything I’d learned about the story and the characters and see it all in this new light and find everything I’d missed, like all those little hints at what was coming that I didn’t recognize for what they were until later.
Because Greater Boston manages to do what so many big time writers (side-eyes Disney) fail to do, and that is to tell a well-plotted, coherent, cohesive story that leaves you no choice but to believe with all your heart that its creators know what they’re doing, have always known what they’re doing and what they wanted for the story and for the characters.
Because here’s the thing, when you’ve got as many characters as we have here, when you’ve got 3 distinct story lines each episode and about 30 minutes to do justice to all those characters and stories, shit can get hard. And this is where Danner and Van Dreason show the depth and breadth of their talent as storytellers. The multiple storylines never feel disjointed or rushed, none of the myriad of characters feel sidelined or underdeveloped or overshadowed by others.
Because the writers take their time with their story. They are in no rush to get to the end or reach some arbitrary climax or some out-of-nowhere plot twist whose only purpose is to generate clicks. They are here to tell a story, and they will take however long they need to tell it because they know that it’s about the journey and not the destination. And in so understanding, they have allowed us to relish the smallest details in this slowly burning journey, episode by episode as each of the three seemingly unrelated stories of each installment end up fitting together neatly within the overarching theme of the episode and of the show as a whole.
You know how these days it feels like every media production company, every author, director, publisher and creator are just trying to one up another? Every new thing is the “most”, “the most ambitious crossover in history”, “the most expensive fight sequence in history”, “the largest collection of A-list actors here solely for the big pay check”, “the greatest thing since sliced bread”?
Everything nowadays is trying to be the biggest, the loudest, the most successful, the one with the highest stakes in its fictional world, the one with the biggest heroes or the saddest anti heroes or the loudest moral message. And I get why that is, to a certain extent, with the future of humanity in such a precarious state, everyone feels like what they have to say is going to be humanity’s saving grace and they must yell loud enough to be heard by everyone otherwise humanity is doomed. Or they just wanna make tons of money. Could be either one!!
But in scrambling to one-up everything that came before, what all those people seem to forget is that sometimes, the simplest stories can be the most powerful. And this is where this podcast again succeeds where most of mainstream media fails. At its core, Greater Boston is simply a story about some of the people of the Greater Boston area; their day-to-day lives, the struggles they face, the people they meet, their hopes and dreams, their shortcomings, their heartbreak and their joy.
It feels almost… understated in comparison to the overwhelmingly loud stories with their even louder messages. But as I’ve said before, GB doesn’t avoid addressing serious topics from politics, to race, to what it means to be part of a society. But they do it in a way that I haven’t seen as often as I would like. In very subtle ways, they manage to make some very powerful statements about humanity.
E.B. White once said “don’t write about Man, write about a man”.
Danner and Van Dreason do this perfectly. They write about Man, by not writing about Man, but about seemingly small men and women who are not so different from you or I. People who remind us of friends or family, or feel like they could be friends or family because of their explosive, wonderful, flawed humanity.
In one man’s struggle with his addiction, one could learn a hundred things about the innate strength of human beings, about the importance of loving support systems to recovery and to life in general, about making amends and doing better and not being defined by a troubled past. In another man’s journey to find that thing missing in his life, one could learn about what we owe to the ones we love, and the difference between following your dreams and abandoning those who count on you. In one woman’s desire to find meaning in her life, one could learn about finding that meaning within oneself. In another woman’s unabashed existence as her most authentic self, one could learn a thing or two about being openly and honestly themselves in their day-to-day lives in a world that would have us apologize for our very existence. And in one stupid scene with one stupid impromptu group song, one could learn a hundred thousand things about how beautiful it is for a community united by hardship to come together when it was only ever meant to be torn apart (I lied that scene was not stupid, it was beautiful and it made me cry and I’m crying now just thinking about it!).
Greater Boston might seem like a simple story, might even feel understated at times, but at no point does that detract from the powerful stories they are telling. And in a world that is increasingly concerned with the next big thing and nothing else, I for one am glad to have a story that starts with a very simple premise and blossoms into a hundred colorful stories that will fight their way into audiences’ hearts and make a home for themselves there.
*Absurdism and authenticity
Of course Greater Boston starts as a story about the people of that area, but within the first few episodes, things start getting more and more ridiculous; a train line wants to become its own city, someone is looking for Atlantis in the Pacific Ocean, someone changes their name to Dipshit and later on we are introduced to cheese robots which are apparently a thing in this version of Greater Boston!!
Now each of those things sounds kind of insane, they were even more so for me because I had no clue that this podcast falls in the genre of magical realism. So, during the first few minutes of episode 1, when a character “expires” at will on a roller coaster, I was like what??
But by the time I had gone through it all, the cheese robots somehow made sense, a subway city that at first baffled me, somehow stole a piece of my heart, and a kidnapping scene involving hippopotamuses… hippopotomai.. hippopotomatoses? Hippotomosees? Whatever, is somehow one of the funniest things I ever heard!!!!
And that’s another brilliant aspect of GB, the way it effortlessly has the mundanity of everyday life juxtaposed with the ridiculous (like a guinea pig infestation!) and combines these things perfectly to produce something so much greater than the sum of its parts.
*Chef’s kiss* representation
As I said earlier, I came across this podcast while looking for something with good queer representation, and I gotta say I was NOT disappointed. I’m trying to not let this review get beyond 4K words, so I’ll just say this: The most significant relationship on this show, the one that gets the most time and development and issues and working through those issues and involves people involved romantically growing together, is a relationship between two women. It’s a beautiful relationship, if I do say so myself, not perfect in any way, but very human and flawed like the two women themselves and I think that’s what makes it beautiful.
Aside from them, there is a bisexual character who is the definition of #goals in every way, an asexual character who’s allowed to just exist as herself, a gay man, and several members of a 17-person polycule (which is a word I learned while listening to GB btw!!).
And that’s just the representation of queer identities, not to talk about all the magnificent women who are each their own person, who have their own histories and hopes and dreams and strengths and weaknesses and who are allowed to be human in a way we rarely see depicted in any media created mainly by men, so just very many kudos to the creators for managing this.
And while I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the quality of the representation of racial minorities and the hardships they face because I am neither an American nor a minority, I will say that I haven’t seen anyone who is those things criticizing what Greater Boston is doing. And that there are multiple major characters of color and that GB doesn’t shy from addressing issues of race.
I would like to end this part with this quote from an interview Danner and Van Dreason did for a local magazine and which can be found in full here https://scoutcambridge.com/the-red-line-secedes-and-thats-just-the-beginning/ because I think it’s the perfect explanation of how they do representation:
“When we’re getting into subjects that are out of our lane, we talk to the actors who will be playing those characters and get their input,” Danner says. “If we’re writing a character who is talking about race, I try not to funnel it from my own perspective. I try to think about, ‘OK, what am I hearing people say who have lived this, and how do I put that into this character … to amplify what they’re saying?’”
And finally, all I have left to say is that I have listened to many podcasts, and loved most of them, and still have fond feelings whenever I think back on first listening to many of them. But Greater Boston is the only one that has ever managed to have such a powerful impact on me, that I find myself still having “feelings” about so many months later!
I know that many of the elements I’ve mentioned here are not unique to Greater Boston, in fact, I think a lot of those things can be said about many different audio drama podcasts. But somehow the combination we have here of sugar, spice and everything not-always-so-nice, as well as that elusive element x, come together beautifully to produce a podcast that, if you’re anything like me, will stay with you for months to come, and maybe have you get up one day, so many months after finishing it, and find yourself compelled by a force you cannot describe to write a several-thousand-word-long love letter to that podcast and the people behind it, and hope with all your heart that it might convince even just one person to listen to this absolute treasure of a podcast.