Given my dedicated hyper-focus on movies when writing for this website, it’s easy to assume that it’s the one thing in the entertainment world that I really care about. And between my ongoing series reviewing all the Friday the 13th movies, my regular reviews of the latest theatrical releases and my advocating for unfairly maligned films tossed by the wayside, that’s a fair assumption to have of me. And while movies are certainly what I have the most to say about in any given moment, they’re far from my only passion.
For instance, you might not have realized that I am an avid podcast listener. Having spent 3-6 hours in my car every weekday for the last half-decade (mostly commuting to or from work), and despising anything and everything playing over the radio, I’ve become quite an aficionado of the various talk shows on my phone. From the horrored halls of academia to the latest misadventures on Dice Funk, they’ve made my prolonged time on the highway the best part of my day (because, seriously, who doesn’t love story time?).
So when I sat in on the latest Marvel movie opening night, I had the unshakable feeling that I had seen it all somewhere before. And no, I don’t just mean that I’d seen Ant-Man (2015) already and so the way that they built upon that movie’s gags, characters and story lines had me reeling with an easily hand-waved sense of déjà vu. This was the kind of tip-of-my-tongue, edge-of-my-seat, inside-of-my-eyelids “I know this” feeling that was bound to keep me up at night.
And then it struck me: The Adventure Zone!
The Adventure Zone, unquestionably the best podcast that I tune into from week to week, follows three brothers (Griffin, Travis and Justin McElroy) and their dad (Clint) as they play their long-running game of Dungeons & Dragons. Each season follows a completely different cast of characters in a completely different setting as they work through a completely different set of plot points and storylines (with them even playing different games altogether). And while I have great love for their latest season, Amnesty (a Buffy-esque, supernatural mystery using the game Monster of the Week), it’s their first season, Balance, that struck such a chord with me while I was watching a pint-sized Paul Rudd punching goons on the back of domesticated carpenter ants.
When fighter Magnus (Travis), wizard Taako (Justin) and cleric Merle (Clint) are hired to retrieve some treasure from a nearby mountain vault, it seems like a job the same as any other. But after discovering the devastating Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, a weapon of such unimaginable power that it burned up its wielder and reduced the nearby town of Phandalin to glass, they are recruited into the clandestine Bureau of Balance: a SHIELD-like organization whose expressed mission is to hunt down the Grand Relics (seven devastatingly powerful relics of which the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet was one). Tirelessly dogged by the villainous Red Robes and forced to adapt to the unique challenges of each new relic (and their mortal thralls), they are tasked with collecting and destroying the artifacts by any means necessary, lest they fall into the wrong hands.
The series’ setup is deceptively simple. Each of the seven relics gets its own narrative arc, which brings our intrepid band of heroes to a new location to square off against new threats. Along the way they meet an eclectic band of NPCs (non-player characters) that range from the boy detective Angus McDonald to the stoic Bureau director Lucrecia to Kravitz, the Grim Reaper himself. And, of course, the plot deepens (and darkens) as they get closer and closer to their goal of collecting all seven of the Grand Relics
The McElroys have an infectious, easy-going chemistry with one another that is unlike anything I have ever heard on another podcast. Some of this, of course, comes from their shared upbringing (they are, after all, family). It might also have something to do with the twenty-four other ongoing podcasts that they collectively produce (including their flagship podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, featuring the three McEl-boys). So after their first arc (Here There Be Gerblins), when they’ve ironed out the specifics of who their characters fundamentally are (and again after the second arc, Murder on the Rockport Limited, where they ironed out the specifics of telling their uniquely McElroy over the airwaves), they’re able to groove off of nothing more than Griffin’s loose plotting and their raucous back-and-forth across larger-than-life 69 episodes (and a jaw-dropping 2 ½ years).
Although the series starts off as a bunch of improvisational goofs and some solid roleplaying, the tone shifts into something much more serious, much more powerful, about halfway through its run. It’s the reason why I’m never emotionally prepared for the countless fan-tributes to these characters and storylines that inevitably make their way across my social media feeds and why I nearly crashed a car on my way to work while listening to The Stolen Century arc. Somewhere between its start in Here There Be Gerblins and its end in Story and Song, they created one of the most emotionally gripping dramas of the 21st century.
The part of the series that surfaced so readily halfway through Ant-Man and the Wasp, was The Crystal Kingdom, the very arc that toggled the series from a primarily comedic one to a primarily dramatic one. While the series had always flirted with elements of modernity and science fiction (Murder on the Rockport Express was set on a train, Petals to the Metal was centered around a Wacky Races / Mad Max-esque drag race, the Bureau of Balance’s base of operations is on the Moon), The Crystal Kingdom brought all of that to the forefront of the series (where it would remain until the first season’s conclusion). Set in a remote laboratory filled with all sorts of sci-fi gizmometry, the arc involves the matter-changing Philosopher’s Stone slowly changing everything it touches into crystal. And, as you would expect from this particular setting, hijinks with all of the high-tech gadgets invariably ensue.
In particular, there is one scene where the trio shrink down like Ant-Man to visit a miniature model of “the city of tomorrow,” incidentally being overrun by Kaiju-sized (relative to them) cockroaches that they now have to fight. Elsewhere they come across normally microscopic Tardigrades (the terrifying flesh-puppies that Ant-Man and the Wasp’s characters encountered while shrinking down to reach the Quantum Realm) blown up into giants (resulting in another spectacular fight scene). The way that this arc played with the scale of encounters, and specifically in its choice for pint-sized adversaries for the trio to face off against, mixed with their nonstop riffing plays uncannily close to the latest Ant-Man’s sequel’s own tone and narrative.
Due to its unique blending of genres, any fan of either science-fiction or fantasy, of comedy or drama, will find plenty to love in this series (and, in particular, this season). Fans of D&D will have fun with the pre-generated adventure that Griffin used as the loose basis of the Here There Be Gerblins arc (Lost Mine of Phandelver). Agatha Christie fans (Murder on the Orient Express) will love their take on closed room mysteries in Murder on the Rockport Express. Fast and the Furious and Mad Max fans will love the Petals to the Metal arc. Majora’s Mask fans will inevitably rally around The Eleventh Hour. Game show and torture porn fans will find plenty to love from The Suffering Game. There’s really a little something for everybody in The Stolen Century and Story and Song is such an immense love letter to the series’ own fandom that anybody who’s stuck around for that long won’t be disappointed by it. And, of course, The Crystal Kingdom bears a striking resemblance to Marvel’s Johnny-come-lately Ant-Man duology. Just know that if you come for the amazing, overarching storyline and tear-jerking character development that it might take a couple of (still excellent) story arcs to find exactly what it is about the podcast that you’ll love.
And after all that, if you haven’t immediately started relistening to Balance all over again (like I instantly did), there’s still plenty more where that came from. From experimental preview arcs to test out new ideas for future seasons (Commitment, Amnesty and Dust) to the second season proper (a continuation of Amnesty) to any of the other double digits worth of shows that the four of them collectively offer, you’ll not be lacking for something to listen to anytime soon. My Brother, My Brother and Me alone just celebrated its 415th episode!
And if all that hasn’t convinced you to listen in on The Adventure Zone yet, maybe one of these astoundingly good fan trailers for the series will: