Review - Decoder Ring

Each month, Willa Paskin (television critic for Slate) poses a pop culture question she's been wondering about and then proceeds to try and find an answer. In the most recent episode "The Cabbage Patch Kid Riots" Paskin explores "why grown Americans were fighting in the aisles over such a homely looking baby doll". To put a finer point on it, Paskin is trying to figure out this "well-chronicled moment when we lost our minds over something we shouldn't have." Each episode is well researched and well written, with interesting and knowledgeable guests invited to illuminate any number of pop cultural mysteries.

Thoughts From Your Pop Culture Concierge

Obviously a podcast like this seems chemically engineering just for me. But Decoder Ring is also very well done - the questions that Paskin poses are legitimately interesting. And each episode is very well structured, with an engaging hook before the opening credits, followed by smartly investigated background information, and then various "evidence" to support whatever answer Paskin is proposing to the month's question. The episodes I've listened to so far are a great combination of nostalgia, new information, hypotheses and occasional social commentary. In an early episode of the show, "Sad Jennifer Aniston", Paskin wonders how is it still a thing that tabloid covers regularly include speculation about when Aniston will have a baby - especially since the first story in that narrative was published way back in 2002. The episode unpacks the intersection of celebrity, tabloids, and sexism that has made Aniston a mainstay of the supermarket aisle for almost two decades. While Paskin doesn't get Aniston to comment for this episode, she does get a lot of interesting input from current and former "celebrity journalists" - many from Us Weekly, the granddaddy of Aniston clickbait. The squirmy rationalization employed to publish these stories is fascinating, if also totally depressing. I was surprised at how very candid the interview subjects were, which speaks to the respect and comfort they must have with Paskin. It's a real asset to the show.

In the only two-parter the show has produced (so far) Paskin tackles the Jane Fonda Workout. I got a kick out of how she phrased the central mystery she wanted to solve: "One of the things that most puzzled me about The Workout was totally tied up in Vietnam and it was this: If Jane Fonda's Vietnam activism had been so controversial, how did The Workout become so successful?  If so many people despised her, why had others let her into their house to teach them how to do pelvic tilts?" Despite this tongue-in-cheek musing, the episode is thoughtfully researched and offers some really fascinating insights into The Workout. For example, prior to the release of the Jane Fonda Workout tape, only two million people in the US even had a VCR. And yes, many people despised Fonda, not the least of whom was Richard Nixon, who apparently spoke of her about as often and with as much antipathy as he did Brezhnev. The episode is especially rich because Fonda herself is interviewed, and acknowledges the complicated history of The Workout and her relationship with the choreographer who created it, Leni Cazden.

I'll acknowledge that I'm of a generation that remembers both the phenomenon of the Jane Fonda Workout as well as the beginning of the Jennifer Aniston saga. But I don't think that is critical to enjoying the work that Paskin and her team are doing. If you yourself didn't experience the subject covered in an episode, she does a good enough job providing the necessary context so you can appreciate the story. If you do have first hand experience, however, I think you will be that much more interested in the stories being told. There are some episodes that explore more current conundrums, like "Baby Shark, Origins of an Ear Worm" or "Pillow Talk - A soft, fluffy mystery" where Paskin tries to understand the rise of the decorative pillow. But a lot of them probably hit squarely in the sweet spot for Generation X - like the story about the war between Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza Place. Whatever your age group, if you like pop culture I think you'll find Decoder Ring an absorbing and worthwhile way to spend your podcast time.

Episodes generally run a little longer than I prefer - many are over 45 minutes, but always less than an hour. But Paskin is writing great copy and her delivery is very effective, so I don't mind have a few driveway moments while I wait for the story to finish.

You can listen to all episodes of Decoder Ring here, on Spotify, Apple podcasts and other podcast platforms.

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