Friday, July 20, 2012

This Week in Listening: The Cleansed

Original artwork by Simon Adams.

I've been following Fred Greenhalgh's work since way back in 2007, when he created Day of the Dead for his senior thesis. It was one of the first shows I stumbled upon while planning Chatterbox and searching the web for contemporary audio dramas.

Since then, Fred has continued producing in a big way, launching both FinalRune Productions and the weekly podcast Radio Drama Revival. His tireless work has been recognized by several Ogle Awards and an extensive profile in the Wall Street Journal, among other honors. Meanwhile, he's also working on a Spotify-style app for contemporary audio theater.

And just when you think that no one person could possibly sustain this kind of output, FinalRune releases The Cleansed, an epic audio series that ups the ante considerably. With an hour-long pilot and five half-hour episodes released as of this writing, the serialized show is more than halfway through its eight-episode first season.

FinalRune has always done solid work, but The Cleansed is a quantum leap for them as far as scale and complexity. It follows a band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic, post-oil America, as they fight to survive and to resist the sinister forces threatening to overtake them. Yes, post-apocalyptic audio serials are nothing new, but The Cleansed avoids most of the trappings of the genre and spins a tale that feels fresh and original.

The hour-long pilot kicks things off with a bang, as a mysterious global catastrophe reaches its tipping point. Through the eyes of a variety of regular folks—a burnout radio DJ, several nervous U.S. soldiers, a delicate child abducted by his father—we see society lose its grip in the face of ecological and psychological disaster. The pilot episode is a bewildering barrage of people and events, with a lot of groundwork being laid very quickly. I expect it will be interesting to revisit it after the series wraps up, now that I know which of its many characters have emerged as focal points. Still, the slam-bang introduction skillfully whets your appetite for what's to come.

After all that action, we keyed-up listeners suffered for nearly a year and a half before the series' first episode debuted. Appropriately, it begins on a calmer note, 15 years after the events of the pilot. Some of the survivors have since banded together to form a village called The Refuge, and have set about rebuilding as best they can. There's even been time for a new generation to come along, with characters like the 14-year-old Maria reminding us that all catastrophes are eventually reduced to imagination rather than memory. But the arrival of the mysterious John Prophet—and the news he brings—threaten the safety of The Refuge, and hint at some very dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

To say much more would be to take away some of the pleasure of listening to The Cleansed, and listen you should. The series has woven a dense, fully imagined world, with a sprawling cast of characters who are each distinctive and interesting. Fred's crisp, charged writing falls far to the "show" side of the show / tell spectrum, so be warned: This is a production you really have to listen to. Remember, you're diving headfirst into more than 15 years of global history and events. If you try to play it in the background while you're busy doing something else, I expect you'll get lost very quickly.

And truthfully, that's about the highest compliment I can give. Readers of this blog know that my favorite audio theater is the kind that stretches the medium far beyond Golden-Age-style cliches, aspiring for something moving and artistic. The Cleansed is just such a production. It's a complex, exciting tale for adults that is immaculately produced, richly imagined, and more than a little frightening. Fred lives off the grid on a self-powered farm in Maine. The Cleansed will make you wish you did, too.

You can keep up with The Cleansed through the FinalRune website, either in free weekly chunks or higher-quality 30-minute episodes, which are $3 each. This is a show to savor, so I recommend investing the few bucks if you can.

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