On “Mystery Show,” the latest podcast from Gimlet Media, host Starlee Kine tackles a new case every week. Her only rule for the mysteries she takes on is that they can’t be solved with Google. If MTV’s Catfish — which can uncover the truth about virtual boyfriends and girlfriends in seconds with a reverse image search — is McDonald’s, “Mystery Show” is straight out of the slow food movement.
The podcast made its debut on May 22, and two episodes have been released so far. The first mystery: a woman named Laura rents a video (Must Love Dogs, if you’re wondering), then returns to the store the very next day to find that it’s been cleaned out and shuttered overnight. The second mystery: novelist Andrea Seigel spots her little-known book in a paparazzi photo, held by none other than Britney Spears.
Could the store really have disappeared so quickly? If they knew they were closing, why would have they made Laura sign up for a membership, or allowed her to rent anything at all? How did Britney find To Feel Stuff? Did she read it? Did she like it?
I won’t tell you how those mysteries unfold, although you should know that it’s causing me physical pain to keep from spoiling episode two’s conclusion. I will tell you that “Mystery Show” is funny, engrossing, and surprisingly moving.
“Mystery Show” will no doubt be compared to Sarah Koenig’s blockbuster hit podcast “Serial,” the first season of which reexamined the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is currently serving life in prison. But this is an entirely different animal: its tone is light-hearted and its scope is precise.
What Gimlet’s new series does remind me of is No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the Botswana-set Alexander McCall Smith novels adapted for television by the BBC and HBO. Like Precious Ramotswe’s cases, the bite-sized, low-tech mysteries on “Mystery Show” are neither criminal nor particularly salacious in nature, but they’re nevertheless made deeply compelling by the charm and ingenuity of their investigator.
Kine is a producer and writer whose voice will no doubt be familiar to listeners of “This American Life.” (You might remember when she sought Phil Collins’ assistance in writing the perfect break-up song, or when she visited a Wisconsin hotel said to be haunted by its original owner.) “I like asking questions,” she says in the second episode, and she means it. Her curiosity is infectious.
One of the unexpected pleasures of “Mystery Show” is its host’s interactions with the strangers she encounters in the process of investigating a case. Kine’s brand of gentle persistence works like emotional X-ray vision. A bookseller shares her lifelong dream of traveling to Ireland; a Ticketmaster customer service rep revisits the loss of his father.
On “Mystery Show,” everyone you meet is full of little mysteries, waiting to be solved.
Episode three of “Mystery Show” will be released today. Subscribe on iTunes, or via your preferred podcatcher.