There’s something about the audio quality of podcasts that, for me, makes it feel like we can talk about anything. This conversational feel drives dozens of quirky talk shows that discuss unconventional, bizarre topics in ways closer to what you might hear when talking to close friends. It also gives ground to subjects that find themselves backlogged in everyday narratives and history — which just so happens to be the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s treasure box, “Revisionist History.” Or, as he describes it in every episode, it’s a podcast about “things overlooked and misunderstood.” (Cue riveting theme music.) Yes, seeing as that’s the criteria for what he covers in his show, that means the subjects are expansive. The show hooks its audience with tales that unspool what we thought we knew about moments in time, sometimes moments we have never heard. Sometimes these subjects are as narrow and hidden and the backstory of a song.
At the show’s best, it reveals what an investigator Gladwell is at heart. He has roots in journalism and it comes through in the way he weaves narratives together. Many people know him first as an author, having many renowned books under his belt, like “Outliers” and “The Tipping Point,” just to name a couple. His latest book, “Talking to Strangers,” explores miscommunication and the ways we default to the truth. He also released it as an audiobook, created in a similar way to his podcast, with music and interviews, and of course, read by him. That’s a key point in this review: Malcolm Gladwell has a perfect voice for a podcast. It’s mesmerizing and poignant, which brings me to another point: he has a penchant for describing people, a nice quality for a podcast.
To Binge or Not to Binge:
The sheer excitement of a new season after the year-long wait can bring tears to your eyes. (At least to my eyes, from experience.) So I don’t know if this podcast should be binged so much as savored. Each episode should be listened to carefully, every minute of it rationed, and then revisited again and again.
Gladwell can be speculative, connecting disparate slices of information occasionally leaves him to conclude on unexpected notes. Will you agree with everything he says? Probably not. That’s part of his magic, though. He has an ability to make you question sans the fear of common conclusions. The gray areas we shy away from receive a lot of spotlight. He talks about the dangers of tokenism in his first episode, “The Lady Vanishes,” which leads to concerns about having a first female president. Does he warn against it? Of course not, but he recognizes that we cannot simply endorse things without mitigating certain factors like moral licensing. This trend continues, as with another one of my favorites at the end of the first season, “The Satire Paradox.” The episode explored several personal concerns of mine about the way we handle political comedy.
Documentaries of the past tried to encompass an entire event, revealing an overarching truth for moments in history. Gladwell’s podcast counters not only that style, but that way of thinking. He pulls specific moments out of the Jenga tower and watches our comfortable associations with historical events begin to crumble. Segmenting an entire decade, even a year, can flatten the nuance and undermine or forget so many perspectives. Our history is composed of millions of individual perspectives. Missing one, or focusing on only one, robs us of stacks, episode lengths, of intriguing, reality-bending details. The aesthetic of “Revisionist History” is what I call action movie journalism. It’s the energy that I find in movies like “Zodiac” and “Spotlight.” He can make policy, things that we have been taught to find boring, and find the true intrigue and consideration they deserve.
Maybe I’ve been giving this show too much praise. Maybe I should look back at my own history to see if there’s anything I’ve overlooked or misunderstood, any confirmation bias on my docket. But I’d still have to thank Malcolm Gladwell for that urge as well.
There’s a whole chocolate box to choose from, and it would be difficult to say which is the best since you never know what you’re gonna get. What’s your flavor? Personally, I like the trilogy on memory, specifically season four, episode three, “Free Brian Williams.” It’s bold and empathetic, although most of his episodes fall under that description.
“The Happiness Lab,” “Hidden Brain,” “The Liturgists,” “Solvable” and “Stuff You Missed in History Class.”
Only if you’re sensitive to the truth.
5 out of 5 stars
41 episodes, each about 30-40 minutes long.