Close your eyes—assuming you can read with your eyes closed. Now imagine if Stranger Things (the show) had a mixed-media baby with The Mysterious Benedict Society (the books) and that awesome little offspring was The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel (the podcast.) I know, right?!? And while you don’t have to be familiar with either to appreciate Mars Patel, or this review, you may end up wanting to check out both.
We were on our way to the farm from which we get our CSA. One of the privileges of membership is that we get to wake up crazy early, drive desperately far, and toil in the asparagus mines for hours under the blazing, hot sun. We needed a new podcast, and we needed one with plenty of episodes. Mars Patel had been on my list since last year, when it was voted one of the top 50 podcasts of 2016, but I’d been reluctant to listen with the kids since it’s described as a podcast for middle-schoolers (my youngest is a mature 7.5 year old) and I hadn’t had the time to audition it by myself.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel won a Peabody award last year, and it’s easy to see why. After the first episode, there was no need to discuss whether or not we liked it enough to give the second episode a chance—I couldn’t get the second episode on fast enough.
It was dramatic*, engaging, and suspenseful, tempered with just enough humor to assuage my youngest. The high production value makes it easy to follow along and the episodes are fast-paced, with enough plot-twists and cliff-hangers to make it binge-worthy. The actor’s voices are distinct and the rapport is authentic. The sound effects are like a tray of sometimes very loud watercolors and your imagination is the brush. Award-worthy for sure.
Episode 1 “Code Red” starts with Oliver Pruitt, the sponsor and billionaire inventor, speaking directly to the children listeners, which my kids ate up. “Mom, don’t listen!” Then you meet Mars, who my son quickly points out hasn’t disappeared...yet. Mars is clearly distressed about the disappearance of his friend, Aurora. His locker-side conversation with his friends is interrupted by a Code Red, and the school goes on lockdown. Mars goes looking for his friend, who needed to run to the bathroom during the code red (to avoid a code brown!) and discovers that his friend Jonas has also disappeared. Only four minutes in and a glance in my rearview mirror shows four wide eyes. My son catches me peeking and smiles, nodding. We are instant addicts.
The similarities to The Mysterious Benedict Society and Stranger Things run deep. These are all children living on the fringe of their social peer groups—questioning authority, speaking the truth, standing up to bullies, and defending their friends—not the kinds of kids that acquiesce to society. “Outcasts, misfits, freaks...losers, oddballs, weirdos…” They think for themselves and they think outside the box. In each series the characters have unique gifts and an element of other-worldliness is explored. Without the understanding and support of their parents, these kids brave out on their own, and it is their wit and ingenuity that save them. In all three, there is tension in aspects of the social dynamics, but ultimately the characters recognize that they have no choice but to trust and depend on each another, and friendships form despite the initial resistance. They persevere despite constant setbacks, and you quickly realize that these are the kids you would have wanted to be friends with in school and the kinds of kids you want your children to be friends with now. If these are the outcasts, I wouldn’t want to fit in. Plus, Oliver Pruitt is as creepy a bad guy as Mr. Curtain and Dr. Brenner.
Later that evening, I am standing at the kitchen counter trimming 15 pounds of asparagus stalks—asparagus for days!—and my daughter calls down, “I think JP stands for Jennifer Pruitt!” (it doesn’t) but I laugh out loud and tell her that it is a good theory. She’d been working on that for hours, and I am thrilled that we have found another podcast that keeps her thinking. “Can we go on PruittPrep.com? I want to see if it’s real!” We have fun answering riddles and exploring the prizes, and we lament the fact that her brother is gone for the weekend or we would drive somewhere just to listen to another episode.
The episodes are on average 15 or so minutes and you have to start at the beginning. Season 1 has ten episodes and so far Season 2 has six. New episodes post on Mondays, so be ready to solemnly promise on Sunday nights that yes, you will indeed wake up early to download the next episode.
* Not surprising, considering the head writer is David Kreizman, who has won an Emmy and multiple Writers’ Guild awards for his work on Guiding Light, All My Children, and As the World Turns.
The Unexplained Disappearance of Mars Patel is available for download on iTunes and for Android or you can listen to it at www.marspatel.com