"We talk a lot as a species about the night sky," our narrator muses into her truck radio. "It's one of those subjects that comes up more often than, say, the social structure of bees." Bees, she explains in defense, are observable -- one can see bees and how they interact. Yet, "so much of the night sky is nothing at all. It is an empty box, and, like all emptiness, it is a mirror."
This cross-section from the first episode of "Alice Isn't Dead" -- a fictional podcast that follows a nameless truck driver as she routes the country in search of her wife, whom she once thought dead -- captures the show's mood in a nutshell: eerie, insightful, offbeat.
The show, written by Joseph Fink of the popular "Welcome to Night Vale" podcast, premiered Tuesday and has already reached the top of the iTunes charts. It's easy to see why: the show has shades of the popular "weird fiction" format that "Night Vale" follows while creating an entirely new universe.
The first episode introduces listeners to the narrator, voiced by actress Jasika Nicole, who shares her thoughts while driving a cargo of travel-sized deodorant, recounting tales from the road. She comments on passing signs, truck-stop bars with video poker in the bathrooms, or the awkwardly high seat of a 16-wheeler, giving just enough detail to recall anytime you've been on a late-night road trip. The podcast recreates the uncanny feeling of timelessness, hours spent without seeing another house or vehicle, only to eventually stumble around a gas station snack aisle at an unknown hour trying to figure out which state you're in.
"I spent a lot of time riding around in vans on long trips and things, especially in the U.S." Fink explained of his life touring "Night Vale" live shows around the world. "There's this interesting thing that happens where you just kind of see all these different places but without any context, because you're just kind of there for a moment and then gone. You just build your own narrative out of the little bits you pick up."
That narrative inspired the format of "Alice Isn't Dead."
“There's this interesting thing that happens where you just kind of see all these different places but without any context, because you're just kind of there for a moment and then gone.”
"Writing for Jasika is a really wonderful thing to do as a writer because you get to have somebody who's incredibly talented and bring what you write alive," said Fink of his collaboration with Nicole.
He approached her about the project, as Nicole tells it, before a live "Night Vale" show. "He ended up pitching me the show," she explained, "but it was such an ordinary conversation between the two of us, like, 'Hey, how's it been going? So, anyway, I have this idea ...'" She signed on immediately and was pleasantly surprised when she received scripts some months later in the mail.
The show's writing had an affect on the actress even then. She described a beautiful day in Los Angeles when she was reading the script from her phone and a chill came over her.
"It's just this one woman in a truck driving across the country at night by herself," said Nicole. "She's describing the landscape in really beautiful detail and it's really creepy. If you've ever traveled a long distance in a car by yourself before, that alone is enough of a creepy factor. And when you add in all these things that she may or may not be seeing ... You kind of don't know what's real or what is symbolic or what's in her head."
Yeah, we're spooked.
What makes the environment in "Alice Isn't Dead" even more stark is the emotional complexity at hand. "If you take it at face value, it's kind of a horror story," Nicole explained. "Then if you, you know, step away from that and think about her perspective on what else is going on in her life, and how people interpret normal events that may be happening while other turbulent things are happening ... That kind of adds a little bit mystery to it."
The fact that she's on the search for the mysterious Alice, and wondering why she left, adds extra oomph to our truck driver's personal demons.
Aside from its thus-far marvelous storytelling, "Alice Isn't Dead" offers a quiet form of diversity to the current lineup of fictional podcasts in its main character, who is, if you didn't catch it, gay. It may be ironic to celebrate it, as deliberately pointing out this fact -- that a story centers around an LGBT character, but doesn't shout it from the rooftops -- negates the sentiment somewhat. Still, we've seen so many gay characters on television and in films where their sexual orientation is the sum total of their character, for better or for worse. The fact that our narrator simply is shows an important glimpse of what a future of inclusive media could look like.
"I definitely think that the whole world of media could use as much diversity as possible," said Nicole when we asked whether more representation in podcasting was important. "The thing is that queer people, and people who are differently abled, and people of color -- I think that they are constantly being forced to see themselves in able-bodied, heteronormative, super-gendered roles all the time because that is what makes up the majority of the media that we're given to consume."
"It sounds completely reasonable that maybe straight people or white people or able-bodied people are having to envision and relate to characters that aren't exactly like them for once," she continued.
The beauty of the "Alice Isn't Dead" narrator, Nicole explained, is that she could have had any kind of relationship.
"I love that she is a queer character but she doesn't have to be, and I guess that's why it's so special," she said. "Because I go through my life and I'm not thinking every single moment of the day, 'I'm a person of color!' ... There are so many other facets to who I am, and I think that kind of goes across the board. It's nice to see a little bit of an intersection of these different identities and how in some ways, they matter a lot, and in other ways they don't matter at all."
Human emotion -- something that's at the forefront of "Alice Isn't Dead," along with some fantastical, creepy elements -- after all, isn't limited to one type of person.
"Everybody is mourning all types of loss, everybody is wondering what happens to us after we die," said Nicole. "These are storylines that cut across the spectrum of race and gender and everything else."