The Shows: The Black Tapes Podcast, The Bright Sessions
Wait a sec, this is different!: Why yes it is! Normally, we just review podcasts here, but this time I want to try something else. To switch it up. To live up to my rep as a loose cannon.
Ok, so what are we doing then?: Both podcasts recently came back from their between season breaks, Sessions just last week and Tapes at the end of August. So this week, we are comparing how the shows ended last season—both with cliffhangers—and how they chose to come back from them. As such, there are spoilers here so be warned. If you read on, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Sounds good. Tell us abouth those cliffhangers!.: When we left Season 2 of The Black Tapes, it was mid-August of 2016. Alex Reagan, the Serial-esque radio host, her producer Nick, and Richard Strand—the accidental center of the podcast, a kind of modern day supernatural debunker along the lines of Houdini if Houdini embraced academics instead of escapes—are stuck in a Northwestern US public radio station convinced they may have just played the musical tones that will bring about the end of days.
A year later and about two weeks later, our time, the show returns and…everything is fine. It is unclear if it has been as long in the world of the cast as it has been in ours but it is clear that a chunk of time has passed. Evidently they didn’t play the right tones? Or they weren’t into the right place? It’s hard to say.
The relationships seem largely unaffected by the passage of time. Strand seems a little more remote than he has been in Season 2 after he and Alex had a pretty significant heart to heart but it also appears he has not been around much lately. In any, the team is quickly back to the same old, same old as they dive into the Tapes, unearth some possibly interesting information about Strand’s dad Howard—a deceased , possibly less skeptical academic—and his connection to the large conspiracy that has more or less consumed the show since about three-quarters of the way through Season 1, but especially in Season 2.
Meanwhile, in the world of The Bright Sessions, therapist Dr. Bright has absconded to the vacation home of Sam Barnes, a former client and time traveler. Also gathered at Sam’s home are Caleb—another former client and teenage empath—Adam—Caleb’s boyfriend and the nephew of Bright’s former boss who is head of a shadowy extra-governmental organization, the AM—Chloe—a mindreader and former client—Frank—a current client and genetically “created” empath—and Mark—a power mimic who is also Dr. Bright’s brother and finally back in the “real world” after being held by the AM first and then “Damien,” a former client of Dr. Bright’s who has the power to control minds.
They are attempting to hide from the aforementioned Damien who, after briefly losing his powers to Mark, is fixing to gain revenge by kidnapping Adam and possibly more. Unfortunately, Damien does discover their refuge and arrives, convinced of his superiority. A feedback loop amongst the two empaths and Mark leads to Caleb becoming enraged beyond his ability to control himself and he beats Damien into unconsciousness, the incredible anger overwhelming the potential kidnapper’s ability to force Caleb to bend to his will.
As the group breaks apart to get Damien and Chloe—who suffered a head wound earlier in the episode—the needed medical attention and return Adam back to his family, the installment closes on a note of uncertainty. Will defeating Damien actually make things worse?
In episode 41, essentially the start of Season 3, we catch up with the crew at Sam’s brand new home about to celebrate her birthday. As with Tapes, time has passed, in this case, basically in lockstep to the space between 40—June of 2017—and 41—October. Over the 4 months, Bright has seemingly officially discharged those previous clients—good because otherwise her relationship to them is DEEPLY unethical—and is now friends with them—not entirely ethical either but better, certainly, than the previous arrangement. They remain connected but the ramifications of the events of the lake house continue to echo. Chloe’s powers are erratic, Sam and Mark are in a relationship as she continues to hack the AM to find out more about people like them and Mark seems to be drinking to deal with him trauma. Adam and Caleb are still together but are struggling, in part because Caleb can’t forgive himself for the outburst of violence, even if it did save them all. Only Frank seems better off, attending classes at the university, out of his own, and largely having wrangled his ability and PTSD.
On top of it all, at episode’s end we also learn that Damien is being released by the AM, although the cryptic message seems to suggest he is not entirely the person he once was, even after months of rehabilitation.
The differences: The most obvious of differences—and the one that makes a huge difference in how well the first episodes of the respective season 3’s are received—is the nature of the cliffhangers.
Sessions’ season 2 finale, even as it gives us a cliffhanger, does contain some resolutions. Yes, we have no idea how the players will be affected by the night that we’ve just listened to, but we know the immediate threat of Damien is dealt with in this specific moment. Therefore, the gap between S2 and S3 could have been long or short and worked equally well. It could’ve been in real time, as it seemed, or it could’ve been a day. As long as they scripted with taking that into effect, it would work. They did so and it does. So they got to have their cake—the cliffhanger—and eat it too—the passage of time without diminishing dramatic potential.
Tapes, on the other hand, had a nailbiter of a cliffhanger. Literally where they left us was the world on the edge of a cataclysmic event that they themselves had just triggered. It’s the kind of cliffhanger that almost demands you pick it up immediately in the next season because, hey, this is the end of existence as we know it.
There can be, I suppose, ways to write a gap in there—perhaps we pick up with Earth a year after the cataclysm or, even, as they did, some period after the misfire. However, the way Tapes does it is so…perfunctory. The drama of the previous season finale is not just released, it is more or less ignored. The first episode takes place far enough away from the previous season finale that we do not even get the kind of post-“oh my gosh we thought we were going to die but we did not” vapors that can lead to soul searching, confessions, and so on. Instead, it is all in the rear view and more or less filed away with two sentences.
As a result, Sessions feels like it is playing it straight with us. They gave us a cliffhanger and then showed us how it affected everyone in a way that honored the stakes they set out. Tapes, by contrast, feels like a bait and switch; their cliffhanger existed to bring us back in Season 3 but not to be explored at all.
To be clear, this is a problem separate from some of the other criticisms that have been leveled at Tapes. The transition from a case of the episode approach to an overarching conspiracy has gained mixed reviews, for certain, but I largely have not minded. Similarly, the criticism that the show squelched its potential for scares, while not necessarily inaccurate, does not bother me. What hooked me was the mysteries and the interplay between Alex, Strand, and the world Strand moved in. The interpersonal dynamics carried me through the seasons and while things were not as scary as when the cast began and the conspiracy did lead to seemingly EVERYTHING being connected, those dynamics kept me coming back largely satisfied.
That is, in part, why I’m as surprised to see myself as frustrated by Season 3’s start as I was—and the frustration transitioning into a disinterest that took me a couple of episodes to shake off. I could take the lessening of scares without much issue. I could swallow the “every tape is connected to these religious cults” conspiracy angle. What I could not do was stomach a finale that was so obviously created without any intention of exploring it or honoring it. It took me awhile to get over that disappointment to pay enough attention to subsequent episodes.
Sessions, meanwhile, used the finale as a springboard to deepen relationships, open up new plotlines, and demonstrate how one shocking event can effect a group of people just coming together as friends. Thus, it has hit this season running, feeling as fresh and interesting as when it left us.