2018, 2019, 2020, Podcasts

Uncover (2018)

Uncover is a unique podcast series, in that it features different stories and different hosts each season. This has potential to make it eternally compelling but the truth of the matter is that CBC is not a podcast provider and doesn’t necessarily know the medium. The result is an incredibly uneven series, and your interest in each season depends seemingly on the host and the production team and not just whether or not the story appeals to you.

So, though I’m reviewing it here, I’ve given up on some of it and my experience of the whole thing is quite mixed.

Uncover Season 1: Escaping NXIVM (7/10)

This is a very in-depth examination of one woman’s escape from the infamous cult. It is perhaps a little longer than it needs to be, and if you’ve encountered anything else about the cult you might get a similar story (albeit one that doesn’t focus so much on one member’s account).

Uncover Season 2: On Board

I maybe lasted 2 episodes. I’m not sure what the point of this season is but, for me, it felt like it was just the hosts thinking “I remember…” and interviewing people who also remember, with maybe a detour here and there into the actual case. I got bored really quickly.

Uncover Season 3: The Village (8/10)

The best and most essential of the seasons is about unsolved murders in Toronto’s gay village:

This is a fascinating examination of the relationship between Toronto Police Services and the LGTBQ community in Toronto. It’s put forward as a true crime podcast and series of mysteries but that’s not really the point of the season. My issue with the podcast is that I want mystery but the mysteries in the show either aren’t actually mysteries or remain unsolved.

But the value of the podcast is to expose someone like me to a community I have virtually no contact with, and to issues that I just don’t know about. I feel like I learned a lot about the history of LGTBQ oppression in Toronto (and Detroit, to some extent) and also their issues today. That for me made it well worth my time, even if the true crime aspect of the show was, in the end, extremely frustrating.

Uncover Season 4: The Cat Lady (7/10)

If you can get by the host’s voice – apparently people struggle with it – this is a fascinating examination of the disappearance of elderly people in Haliburton. I like podcasts like this but I can understand why some people will be upset about where it goes (or doesn’t go).

Uncover Season 5: Sharmini (5/10)

It’s hard to know why this season exists. If you’re going to re-litigate a murder investigation it’s helpful to have new evidence and information. There is some of that, at least information that was new in 2011, but this season is incredibly myopic in its focus, ad appears to be more about the host’s guilt and sadness over there never having been a conviction than an actual compelling case that the person accused of the crime actually did it. (The host reported on the initial case and genuinely cares about it.)

Here’s an example: there is endless circumstantial and “factually similar” stuff to suggest Tippett did it, but there’s also DNA evidence in the case Tippett was actually convicted for. The only people who seem to be interested in the DNA evidence are Tippett, the convicted felon, and his lawyer. Nobody else, not the Crown and not the podcast host. This is a problem because these cases are missing “direct evidence” – and yet the direct evidence that exists is of no interest? I admit, the circumstantial evidence is extremely powerful. But, usually, when someone is in jail and learns there is DNA evidence, it’s the guilty prisoner who doesn’t want the DNA tested, not the Crown or members of the media.

But it’s not just this stuff that’s a problem. Another problem is that it just feels like the host wants to relive the whole thing for herself and to remind us this case existed. She is convinced of who did it and she knows he hasn’t been convicted. She is not interested in an impartial examination of the evidence nor is she particularly interested in creating a more compelling argument either way (beyond noting the “factually similar” evidence does indeed strongly suggest he did it, which is more than they knew in 1999). Instead, she wants the voices of the frustrated former police to be heard and she wants the voices of the family to be heard. And she wants Tippett on record contradicting himself.

And some strange stuff comes out of these interviews. For example, much like in Dirty John, you have multiple people – including cops – insisting Tippett is the most dangerous man they’ve ever met, even though he’s never been convicted of murder. Is it just me or is that something that should be interrogated by the journalist? If someone tells you that someone who is not a serial murderer or rapist – or, who, in this case, has not been convicted of enough to prove that – isn’t it your job to call bullshit on that? (The same thing happened in Dirty John – the idea of a John being extremely dangerous was apparently much more compelling for the narrative than the more likely truth, that he was not as dangerous as, say, a serial murderer.)

This not what I want. I want investigative journalism that does the best job possible of showing either Tippett did it or Tippett didn’t. As someone who believes all are innocent until proven guilty, I have a hard time with the way this podcast assumes from the start that the guy who the host thinks did it absolutely did it ad so it’s more important to just interview people, rather than to look at evidence.

Uncover Season 6: Satanic Panic (8/10)

15 or so minutes into it, we’re told the outcome of one of the cases. Why? Why not assume your audience doesn’t know the story and trust the audience will not look it up.

But there goal isn’t to tell a mystery, it’s to tell the story of what happened. Once I got over my annoyance at the presentation, I came to feel like this is one of the best of the seasons. It’s worth sticking with it through its final episode, which makes a few points us Canadians should think deeply about, especially when we’re looking for bogeymen to blame project our fears onto.

This one also gave me what I think is a great idea for a TV show: a religious horror film which is eventually revealed to be completely in the minds of the police, parents and counselors.

Uncover Season 7: Dead Wrong (7/10)

Canada’s most insane wrongful conviction gets the Uncover treatment and it’s…just not as good as any number of American criminal justice podcasts:

So much of what outrages us is in the telling.

What the RCMP and Halifax police did to Glen Assoun is outrageous and should make us all angry. It’s worse than most police misconduct I’ve learned about through Undisclosed.

But I’m less outraged listening to Uncover Season 7 than I usually am listening to Undisclosed.

Now some of that is because I already knew about what the RCMP and/or Halifax police did to him; I read about it well before there ever was a podcast.

But some of this is at least on the podcast, and proof that, as usual, podcasters are better at podcasting than legacy media coming into podcasting and trying to podcast. Uncover is just not as good as so many preexisting podcasts made by people who want to tell stories in this format. Season 7 is better than many, but it’s still told in a way that somehow tempers the reveals and doesn’t lead to the same level of outrage I get from so many other criminal justice podcasts.

Uncover Season 8: Brainwashed

McGill University performed “mind control” experiments for the CIA. This actually happened. It’s worth listening to alone because nobody talks about this. It’s also well done.

Uncover Season 9: Evil by Design

Canada has produced the worst sexual predator of our era (that we know of). This series investigates his fall. It’s awful stuff but it’s worth it if you can sit through it. We need to know about this stuff so it doesn’t continue to happen.

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