Need a 2016 Election Antidote? Try Welcome to Night Vale
Each election cycle, the purveyors of mass media make a play to appeal to the public’s interest in politics—and provide an antidote for it. Whether it’s the screeds from folks like Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver, or the drama provided by Hillary Clinton-endorsed shows like House of Cards or The Good Wife, pop culture—TV especially—tends to provide a salve during election years. Yet none of these things capture how strange the 2016 campaign has been as well as Welcome to Night Vale.
Yes, Welcome to Night Vale. The science fiction podcast about a small desert town might just be the one thing that can fully alleviate the fear and anxiety induced by watching Clinton and Donald Trump run the gauntlet that is running for president. It even might offer a modicum of catharsis while doing it.
In the lore of the show, the City Council of Night Vale has remained unchanged since 1824—and the Sheriff’s Secret Police collects family members in order to ensure everyone votes the way they’re supposed to. But the real madness appears during the mayoral election—a series of events that might feel like the funhouse-mirror version of your nightly CNN intake. In Episode 24 (“The Mayor”), current Night Vale mayor Pamela Winchell announces that she’s stepping down. Over the course of the next year, several candidates throw their hats in the ring, including Hiram McDaniels (a blogger who is literally a five-headed dragon), the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, and Marcus Vanston, a billionaire who “drops out” of the race because he ascends to a higher plane of existence than the citizens of Night Vale. (Let that sing in.)
Throughout the second year of Night Vale—which just released two volumes of episode transcripts, Mostly Void, Partially Stars and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe—host Cecil Baldwin provides updates on the election, various candidates make statements to the voters, and more gets revealed about how an eerie old town even holds something like democratic elections.
As it turns out, the rules deliberately make no sense, like Calvinball, or, you know, the current political discourse. Citizens cast votes, but nobody counts them, and instead the winner is decided by listening to loud pules coming from Hidden Gorge, a location containing machines nobody knows how to find. Sure, Night Vale isn’t plagued with hackable voting devices, but finding out one town chooses its leaders based on anonymous cries does have an air of “it could be worse”—even if the town is fictional.
The second volume of transcripts concludes with one of Night Vale’s live episodes only available to those who purchased it: “The Debate.” It features the return of Kevin, the host of Desert Bluffs’ radio station and Cecil Baldwin’s rival, and reveals that he is the only person who can actually see the face of the Faceless Woman. The book concludes with the final proper episodes of Night Vale’s second year on the air—and the revelation of the identity of Night Vale’s new mayor. It’s a great payoff for longtime listeners of the show, and likely the kind of denouement that might feel like wish fulfillment for anyone who just wants it to be Nov. 9 already.
The last couple months—and the next few weeks ahead—are nothing if not a media onslaught of debates, analysis, and talking heads. On top of that are shows trying to turn that discourse into entertainment. Amidst that absurdity, Night Vale feels like a respite. It’s pure fantasy that provides a level of comfort. It may have rigged elections and dragons for candidates, but at least in Night Vale those supernatural occurrences and impossible circumstances don’t have tremendous consequences for real people.
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