True crime is a wildly popular genre of podcast. The human desire for salacious detail and vicarious thrills keeps us coming back for more gruesome stories and hideous tales of depravity and violence.
And, of course, there is the ever important unsolved mystery, which offers a tantalising puzzle for podcast hosts to investigate and - maybe - solve to great acclaim (see Serial etc etc). While these are often relatively worthy endeavours, popular ideas always attract spoofs, and it is into this category Arden falls.
The subject of this investigative podcast is Julie Capsom, a famous child actress. She had a dazzling career, firstly with a family-based television series, in which she featured as the precocious child, and then with a range of film roles, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. But like many people who become famous too young, she suffered from a certain unreality, and was often at conflict with her parents and society, having a few instances of burnout, and crashing a car into an Abercrombie and Fitch.
That all came to a head when she left a party late one night, and drove for twelve hours across the USA, before crashing her car into a tree. A quick scuffle with a helpful passerby followed, and by the time he'd managed to summon an ambulance, she'd vanished off into the woods, never to be seen again, leaving only her car behind.
Adding to the mystery, when the police searched that car, they made a rather grisly discovery, finding a torso and a staggering amount of blood. The torso belongs to an ex-boyfriend of Julie, also missing since that night. He manages to be both victim and suspect, as the murderer of him and Julie was never found.
That, then, is the aim of Bea Casely, who is hoping to get her big break in broadcasting by solving the case. But a single host limits the possibilities for misadventure, and so Bea is joined by Brenda Bentley, a private investigator who worked on the case originally as a police officer, but who was fired after losing evidence when her truck was set on fire. (The evidence wasn't meant to be in the truck.)
Usefully, for entertainment purposes, they do not get on. Bea is straitlaced, where Brenda is casual. Bea tries to remain impartial, while Brenda is happy to side with one witness against another. They scrap. A lot.
But it's all fun. This is a comedy, after all, and their constant bickering over the best way to interview a suspect, chase down a lead or hunt for a crew, is always entertaining.
They're backed up by an equally amusing ensemble, including Rosalind the hypercompetent assistant (who seems to have a whole bunch of adventures in snatches of background information), and Andy Wheyface, the eccentric billionaire who funds the entire operation. And somehow manages to find the time, in presumably what is a very busy life, to voice all of the adverts on the podcast. For such silly things as sock subscription boxes, and dehydrated meals.
Which is somewhat the problem with the overall arc of the series. It starts out, and continues for about 80% of the show as a comedy. In many ways, an excellent comedy. The main pair are enjoyable, and the chaos that goes on around them is fun. But sometimes it runs on too long. The value of a spoof is that it mocks the main tropes of a genre, while not falling into the traps of that genre. Here, the show sometimes becomes lost in the nitty gritty detail of its conspiracy, running episodes that approach an hour long, while not progressing the story. Sometimes it tries to tip a wink to that, setting shows in trapped locations (see a bottle episode on a plane), but that doesn't necessarily break it up as much as it needs to.
This is also the major problem towards the end of the series. The show maintains a comic attitude for the first 80% or so, but in the last couple of episodes suddenly decides it has an important message to say. The tone shifts dramatically from funny to serious, and the change is not very natural. If it had started serious, or ended funny, I'd have had more investment in the conclusion, but as it was, I mostly finished it to find out how they solved the puzzle. That, at least, was fairly decent.
Take a listen to the first episode: