Quality Dystopian Propaganda: Our Fair City


In the tunnels below and the singular monolithic tower looming above an icy, postapocalyptic wasteland, the policies of Hartlife huddle close together and listen to recorded histories of the company’s glorious history. Such is the stage for Our Fair City, a serialized podcast created by veterans of the Chicago theatre scene and spanning, thus far, six completed seasons.

Since I can already hear your mental cogs turning – a dystopian community presided over by a baritone radio announcer who paints over daily horrors with a sweet spin of propaganda – I suppose I should start by saying that OFC actually predates Welcome to Night Vale by several months. And it isn’t just that, either: while the two podcasts share several surface similarities, they’re quite different on a thematic and structural level. OFC’s Narrator does have shades of characterization in later seasons, but his perspective isn’t an all-encompassing lens in the way Cecil Palmer’s is. Nor is it a current events broadcast. Rather, we’re listening to a corporate spin on “historical events” that clearly chafe against that top layer of jingoist blubber. And the characters of these records are quite aware (or quickly become so) of the dystopian noose round their necks – something which adds a wholly different level of melancholy to the proceedings, knowing that these things have happened and Hartlife remains. And, presence of a certain visiting scientist aside, the supernatural events of OFC are rooted in sci-fi B movies and steampunk (mole people engineered by “Dr. Moro,” lightning riggers bottling energy for the tunnels below) rather than conspiracy theories and Lovecraftian existentialism. A creature of a different genetic material, dear readers.

It is also, though it may have slipped beneath your radar before now, quite worth your attention. Like all serialized podcasts, it has its share of smoothing out to do in the beginning, but its concept is rock solid from the word “go” and the performances are likewise benefited by the cast of professionals. And since it now has six seasons under its belt, early issues like that perennial Season One Callousness between characters and some initial difficulty juggling a sizable cast pass by in a binging flash (the first two seasons are roughly the time sink of a film). By season three the writing has gelled into a smart balance of interlocking threads that never spotlights more than a handful of characters at a time and makes characters a more important driving force in the script than the passing around of the Macguffin du jour. At the same time, a character story (mole people questioning their subhuman status, a woman who was revived from death and fighting flesh cravings, an executive fallen from grace) will be paired with a central conflict that forces new dynamics into play and gives each season a structural backbone and a source of pacing. There’s a constant sense, as there is in all good ongoing stories, that it’s learning and growing as it goes along.

And as for the characters themselves, they’re a varied and intriguing lot. Often far from good people by virtue of their conditioned upbringing, a spark of humanity always manages to surface in a quiet or dire moment. Often for emotionally painful effect. It’s also nice to see a cast that’s quite near gender parity, and which also writes a solid spectrum of interesting roles for its female actors (it could use a little more diversity romantically speaking, but baby steps I suppose).

Outside of the main story there are also pseudo-canon live shows, which break away from the established cast to explore another element of Hartlife’s corporate or civilian structure. It’s a smart way to offer paid content without gating off important elements of the main story while also giving greater weight and reality to the established setting. While cliffhangers can be dire, it’s always its own kind of treat to take these detours. There are also graphic novels, but I’m afraid my investigative powers have not stretched that far for the moment, and I can tell you little beyond the fact that they exist and make occasional use of characters who are still alive but no longer part of the main narrative. Given what a struggle it can be to find funding in a medium that has roots in free distribution, I have the utmost respect for this balance of paid versus free content.

And now, the addendum that is the reason this podcast and I crossed paths: it’s a running current-day series that makes prominent use of Herbert West as a character, and I went and left it out of my history of the character. Such a grievous oversight begged to be corrected, and along with it came…well, all the rest of that effusiveness up there. So, how is Herbert specifically?

Delightful, dear readers. Ever since 1985, Jeffrey Combs’ performance has cemented itself to just about every interpretation thereafter (though looking at Shoggoth on the Roof’s woeful usage of Hebert, I can hardly fault the change). So we get mostly blunt, monomaniacal manipulators with very deadpan senses of humor. Which is great but also an invention of the film in many ways, and one does like to see a bit of variety when they’re digging into adaptation twenty.

And here, to answer my prayers, OFC’s Herbert: a boisterous, friendly gentleman who could not be more enthused about new discoveries who simultaneously has exactly zero ethical compunctions about anything that could get in the way of science (pronounced SCIENCE!). The closest comparison would be Driscoll’s take on the character, but that Herbert is constrained and contextualized by the watchful eye of society, while this version is merrily running round in a dystopian post-apocalypse. Ryan Schile’s voice work is, on the surface, a parody of a parody of a Proper Gentleman – get in the nasal neighborhood of C3PO and then imagine the sort of person who would shout TALLYHO at top volume and you’re about there – but underneath there’s a rich texture to his performance that makes the character feel real across a solid range of emotions. Even when he does the character-type bog standard of “creepy moment calls for dropping two octaves in pitch,” the moments feel germane to the world and Herbert as much as they’re for narrative effect. And he’s actually given a chance to have a character arc rather than being a nigh-force of nature for a token “normal” character to throw themselves against – even the films were rather guilty on that point.

If I have one point of perplexity – and it is one of those things that likely applies only to me and the four other nerds who’ve put in too many hours on the subject – it is blasted strange to see Herbert West in a heterosexual relationship. The character’s history has queercoding baked into his DNA, arguably starting unintentionally (oh so unintentionally, given Lovecraft’s astronomical bigotry on pretty much every subject) with the original stories, which beat actually gay Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale to that whole “two men hiding a dark secret that would have them removed from society are seeking to bring about life without needing a woman” thing by two decades. And most adaptations since then have worked on some flavor of “sex-repulsed but obsessed with his assistant” to “overtly queer and some variation of closeted.” But I’ve bored you all with this pet project at length.

My point is that while it’s weird by virtue of my stupidly specific and largely useless knowledge base, I can’t really bring myself to fault OFC’s approach – their choice to put Herbert in a relationship spanned nearly the entirety of the show’s currently existent run, both characters were well developed separately and with an excellent rapport (and unbelievably charming actors) before the shift in relationship dynamics, and it comes about in a fairly believable fashion from characters who approach things like adults. The best case scenario in a world where writing heterosexual relationships is often lazily shorthanded to “they made eye contact and saved each other’s lives once, obviously they want to touch bits and you should care about that.” In fact, they’re actually quite sweet – which, contextually speaking, might be the starkest statement on writing and performance quality in this whole affair.

I believe I digress.

But really if you do nothing else, you really owe yourself the treat of listening to “Herbert West vs. The Martians.” Even if it doesn’t convince you to give the podcast as a whole a shot (and it might well, since it laces in just enough hints of worldbuilding around the edges) it is a wonderful investment even as a standalone short story. Sometimes I relisten to it just to brighten my day.

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2 replies »

  1. I wonder about Lovecraft’s intentions. I mean yes, it was a different time, he was a very different dude, and some queerness can’t help but appear when your collected works have maybe five significant women and one of them is actually her dad, but sometimes it seems there must be some coding there. I don’t remember Herbert West very well, but Hypnos is about two men, a decadent artist and his beautiful model (the artist reiterates his beauty constantly) who live together and spend all their drug-fueled nights exploring eldritch dreamscapes. One would imagine that scenario reading as homoerotic even in the twenties, when Oscar Wilde was still fresh in memory. Lovecraft even steals the image of perpetual youth that instantly turns into old age from The Picture of Dorian Gray. In a more abusive vein, there’s the aforementioned Ephraim Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep, who possesses his daughter’s body to marry a man and do something awful to him.

    • Hmmm, an interesting point. Though as much as I adore what’s come of it, it’s really hard to imagine Lovecraft meaning anything in the Reanimator stories charitably – being pure cash grabs and also rather sour grapes parodies of Frankenstein as they were.

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