The Best New Social Thriller Is a Podcast

Fiction podcasts have always felt one step behind the culture. The audio drama’s great and unexpected resurgence in this decade, thanks to the rise of podcasting’s listen-whenever-and-wherever-you-like technology, has produced a cutting-edge genre that seems somehow suspended in time.

Maybe it’s because so many scripted podcasts have borrowed from old radio plays. Or maybe it’s because they’ve so often leaned into genre storytelling, leaving social reality behind to build fantasy worlds and unravel mysteries. The experimental sandbox of the new form has produced sharp plots and intriguing aural soundscapes but few stories that seem to access something bigger than themselves.

The moment that changed, for me, came when I was white-knuckling the pole in a crowded subway car, piping the pilot of the politically charged dystopian fantasy “Adventures in New America” into my ears (the premiere is on Sept. 28). I began to sense the world developing in my head as more immediate than the human crush of my commute. I felt something similar a few days later, running down the street and listening to the first episode of “The Horror of Dolores Roach” (Oct. 17). It’s a show with “Sweeney Todd” elements that also draws in threads about gentrification and racist policing, and it was so absorbing that I missed my turn by three blocks.

“Adventures In New America” — created and written by the filmmaker Stephen Winter and his longtime collaborator Tristan Cowen, and produced by Night Vale Presents — is set in a new nation formed after an unidentified cataclysmic event. New America is a lot like old America. It’s brimming with bizarre patriotic displays. It’s going through a poke bowl craze. Every social interaction brings a heady mix of performative wokeness and racist microaggression. It’s kind of like America 2: More American. Or as Mr. Cowen puts it: “The dystopian future is our present.” Meanwhile, a mysterious new race has arrived, known in the show as Tetchy Terrorist Vampire Zombies from outer space. The zombies are both extremely racist and highly sensitive about their own identities — the various supernatural labels attached to them in New America are, to their mind, not very P.C.

In absurdist landscape, we latch onto IA, an appealing loner voiced by Mr. Winter. In Episode 1 we follow him as he learns he has an operable brain tumor, falls through every loophole of the New American health care system, and discovers that the only way to finance the procedure and save his life is to get arrested and avail himself of the free services of the prison hospital. IA is black, so this should not be too hard, and yet it proves absurdly impossible: When he tries to persuade a police officer to pick him up for blatant shoplifting, the cop is insulted: “You telling me how to do my job?”

For listeners of “Welcome to Night Vale,” the series has a familiar sound; it borrows a structure from vintage radio drama, and it’s pumped with fantasy elements. But it also stakes a claim to a cultural conversation that’s still unfolding. It feels sympatico with Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” in its critique of entwined capitalist and racist structures, and the way it makes the horrific funny recalls the new era of social thriller being ushered in by the sketch show creator-turned auteur Jordan Peele.

Also joining the conversation is “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” Gimlet’s first foray into horror. If the world of “New America” pitches society into the future, “Dolores Roach” burrows into its underbelly. When we first meet Dolores, she is underground, hiding in an abandoned New York City subway tunnel. This is where you go when you’re pushed out of the margins of society’s margins. It’s happened because, as we will soon learn, she’s killed a bunch of people and stuffed them into empanadas, but also because of how the city’s racial and economic dynamics beat down on a woman like her.

After serving 16 years in prison on trumped-up pot possession charges, Dolores returns broke and confused to the newly gentrified Washington Heights. All of the her neighborhood landmarks have been replaced by T-Mobiles and Citibanks, its once-friendly faces supplanted by green smoothie-drinking white girls in workout clothes who are free to smoke their boutique hydroponic weed without incident. The only thing left is the local joint Empanada Loca and its owner, Luis (Bobby Cannavale), who opens the shop’s doors and his weed stash to his old friend. Despite all the indignities visited upon Dolores — and all the crimes she’ll commit in her tragicomic descent into madness — the tale is built on that tender emotional core. Breathing all these elements to life is the voice of Daphne Rubin-Vega — the original Mimi in “Rent” — whose performance as Dolores slinks into the listener’s mind in a way that feels unrivaled in audio.

“Dolores Roach” is adapted from “Empanada Loca,” a 2015 one-woman show staged by the Off Broadway Labyrinth Theater Company that also starred Ms. Rubin-Vega. Gimlet’s new head of scripted content, Mimi O’Donnell, is Labyrinth’s former artistic director, and “Dolores Roach” is the first series she’s overseen soup to nuts for the company. Part of Ms. O’Donnell’s pitch for the job played up the possibilities presented by cross-pollinating podcasting with the theater; playwrights are studied in telling stories with dialogue that are laden with metaphorical opportunity.

It’s hard not to notice that scripted podcasts are blooming as they become just a little less white. With some exceptions — Issa Rae’s podcast “Fruit” comes to mind — fictional podcast creators are a fairly small and homogeneous bunch. Mr. Winter and Mr. Cowen had been drafting the story of “New America” in screenplays for years, and turned to audio only when Night Vale Presents reached out, “interested in making podcasts with people who have never done that before,” Mr. Winter said.

“Not being a straight white guy — being black, being biracial — you’re always inside and outside the world at once,” he added. “It’s exciting that we’re all getting a place where folks are beginning to appreciate that perspective.”

And “Dolores Roach” is a virtual co-creation with Ms. Rubin-Vega, who originated both the title character and all the others in the one-woman show, and weighed in on casting and scripting on the podcast adaptation. “Her imprint on this is enormous,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

Later this year, Panoply is teasing a new show meant to push the boundaries of another typical podcast form: the mystery. Created by Panoply’s head of scripted content, John Dryden, “Passenger List” is loosely inspired by the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; Mr. Dryden has described it as a mash-up of an Agatha Christie whodunit and a political thriller. The show is co-written by Lauren Shippen, creator of the cult hit podcast “The Bright Sessions,” and stars Kelly Marie Tran as Kaitlin, a woman who lost her twin brother on the plane and undertakes an unofficial investigation. As she digs into each passenger’s story, the outlines of a global conspiracy emerge, which allows the story to wind around current issues as wide-ranging as Islamophobia and Russian election interference.

Ms. Shippen and Ms. Tran have been conferring closely on scripts in Los Angeles, including working out how to build a Vietnamese-American character in audio, and they’re set to record this month in London in between Ms. Tran’s “Star Wars” shoots. It’s as exciting a collaboration as any on screen.

The summer of scams continues

The recent glut of fantastical scammer tales — including magazine profiles of the faux-socialite and the faux-explorer — continues with a set of new podcasts devoted to grift.

In “The Dream,” the former “This American Life” producer Jane Marie dives into America’s love affair with multilevel marketing schemes. The pilot, which drops Sept. 24, focuses on “The Airplane Game,” a fabulous cocktail party slash pyramid scheme that arose in Manhattan and South Florida in the 1980s. As the show develops, these schemes emerge as helpful metaphors for bigger American issues, among them the bizarre marriage of new-age spiritual thinking with good old-fashioned commercialism.

Meanwhile, a joint investigation between The Boston Globe and WBUR tries to crack open one of the most sensational unsolved art heists of all time. “Last Seen” (out Sept. 17) revisits the brazen 1990 theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, among them a Vermeer and a Rembrandt. It’s not yet clear if the podcasters solve the case, but the team is teasing juicy interviews with figures who’ve never been heard from before. And Nxivm, the cult that masqueraded as a quasi-feminist self-help group, gets another shakedown courtesy of reporters from the CBC. “Uncover: Escaping NXIVM,” which debuted earlier this month, tells the story of a star recruiter for the group who flipped and started working to take it down.

Will the Marvels never cease?

Marvel has made its first scripted audio series, one that tells a new kind of story about an old favorite. “Wolverine: The Long Night” recalls true crime podcasts and “Twin Peaks” as much as it does the “X-Men” comics or films. Richard Armitage stars as Wolverine, who comes under the suspicion of a two special agents, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Ato Essandoh, as they investigate a trail of murders.

The show could represent the dawn of a whole new expansion opportunity for the Marvel paracosm. Fans are asking: Is this the dawn of a Marvel Podcast Universe? “I wouldn’t exactly label it a ‘universe’ yet, but we’re definitely interested in pursuing more scripted audio,” said Dan Silver, a vice president of Marvel New Media. “Wolverine: The Long Night” debuted on Stitcher’s premium network in April; as of this month it will be released widely, no subscription necessary.