Matthew Kresal finds an eerily familiar political thriller for our time.
It is said that art can be a mirror to illuminate our own world, or to show it as it might be. That is especially true of that genre of political thrillers and dramas which ranges from House Of Cards (both UK and US versions) to The West Wing. Now Terms, a new serialized audio drama podcast has recently joined the fray as well. Produced by the Dallas, Texas based company Wondery, Terms is a thriller for our time.
The basic premise of the series is simple. Following a long and fraught election campaign, demagogue Republican candidate Charles Dunwalke loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College. Two term incumbent President Oliver Pierce watches it unfold in horror and begins to set in motion a series of events that he hopes will keep Dunwalke from being able to assume the Presidency. Across the thirteen episodes of the opening season, Terms becomes a series of chess like moves by Pierce as the clock ticks ever forward to inauguration day. With episodes being released in near real-time to the dates in the story, the result is an at times uncanny take on the current state of the American political stage.
Though don't let that deter you from listening to it, especially if you're some fatigued from all the political coverage that seems to be non-stop these days. Series creator Lindsay Graham, along with writers Robert McCollum and Michael Federico (who both also act in the series), wisely avoid getting into debates about partisan politics. The series seeks to rise above that and succeeds as instead it becomes a tale of one man trying to do what's right for his country when he sees it threatened by an enemy within, albeit one that feels a little too close for comfort at times. The questions of legality and morality that come into play heighten the drama, especially as the season goes along. They continue right up until the finale which I feel safe in saying you will never see coming. It's a different kind of political thriller from what you're likely expecting.
The verisimilitude of it is greatly helped by the quality of the productions. The acting is solid, drawing from the apparently rich group of actors in the Dallas area, with the cast being led by Jeffrey Schmidt as President Pierce and Brandon Potter as President-Elect Dunwalke. They play two very different men with different visions of America and willing to do almost anything to attain it. The supporting casts are strong as well with a group of regulars including McCollum and Federico as one of the President's top aides and a journalist who gets drawn into Pierce's game, as well as Lydia Mackay as the First Lady. The sound design for the episodes is just as solid as the performances, taking listeners from the Oval Office to secret rooms in the White House, across the United States from snowy New York state to a barbecue joint in Austin, Texas. Terms is a prime example of what audio drama can do: tell big stories on a fraction of the budget that a TV series or movie would have to spend to do so.
Which, in a way, brings me to my one criticism of the series. Despite its apparently sweeping nature, it often feels as though the writers are limiting themselves to what they can do with short episodes (often about fifteen minutes or so, not including the messages from sponsors or the occasional extra interview or word from the show makers). It's not just the running time but also the fact that episodes tend to feel like they're limited to a couple of scenes that amount to a series of conversations. While the medium plays well to the spoken word, for those with an experience of other audio dramas it can feel like a rather limited way of expressing oneself at times. The series does start to get bigger and bolder as it goes along, especially in the back half of the season such as episodes ten, twelve, and thirteen. With Graham stating his hope for another season, one hopes they'll build on what they've learned and perhaps expand the pallet of the series a bit next time.
Despite some minor niggles with it, Terms is well worth a listen. That's especially the case if you enjoy political dramas and thrillers. Because whatever you may have seen or heard before, I suspect the series will still surprise you and leave you waiting for season two to drop onto your iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever podcast app you happen to be using.
Find out more about, and listen to Terms here.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.