When I review podcasts, I try to think about a few things:
What is the overall production value like?
What’s the point of the podcast?
How effective is it at its goal?
What social responsibility is there to consider?
The first three are relatively easy to talk about. They’re easier to grasp and for a lot of podcasts, the social responsibility is something I’m not always sure I can talk about. So sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
Then I come across a podcast that’s like Academy. An audio drama from Wondery and At Will Media that’s quite good on the surface, but things about it sit uncomfortably as I listen. I don’t really think it’s wholly the fault of the podcast, but it’s a consideration I’m making as I write this review.
Meet Ava Richards, a scholarship student who just transferred to Bishop Gray. This is an elite of elite boarding school, and it has The List. The top ten students at Bishop Gray have doors opened for them, or their lives destroyed by way of The List. Ava’s goal is to get on the list, in any way possible. Ava gets tangled into life at Bishop Gray, facing issues that normal high schoolers face - and issues that not-so-normal high schoolers face. Like secret societies.
Overall, this podcast is really well produced. The audio is crisp and clear, and the acting is top-notch. The writing and general design of the show do feel like it was a television show that didn’t get green light for a television studio, so it found its home in audio. This is okay, but it definitely lends itself to wanting visual help more than other audio dramas have wanted.
Especially with the reminder that Ava is a Black student. It’s mentioned a few times throughout the series, but “marginalized” is not a synonym for Black, especially Black in rural Pennsylvania where Ava is supposed to be from. The writers of this podcast could have added small details to remind us that not only does Ava have a financial disadvantage by being a scholarship student, but also a social one by possibly being one of the only Black students at the school. Are there questions about her hair when in the general area of the pool, or even during a waxing scene in the bathroom? Or the fact that while many teenagers are socially and culturally aware, are these privileged students, isolated from the general population aware of the Black cultural relationship to hair and its differing beauty standards?
I also feel like this podcast should have just been set in a college. Bishop Gray is a fictional high school, and while I am aware that there are elite boarding schools, it doesn’t feel like high school. Sure, those students at these real-life schools most likely engage in highly risky behavior by way of possibly having more independence within the confines of the school - but everything about this podcast reads early college to me. This means while it’s being touted as a Young Adult-oriented podcast - which by my understanding is the ages of about 13-18.
Why I think this podcast should have been set in college has more to do with a pitfall of the entertainment industry as a whole. Academy prides itself on “erotic scenes that push the limits” and this is where I tell you they do. They are uncomfortable to listen to, and honestly, I’m wondering how you make listening to a sex scene not uncomfortable. Especially as an adult listening to fictional children having sex for the first time.
I recognize that Academy may not have been written for me as I am an adult, but it does leave an uncomfortable taste in my mouth. To think about those adults who engage in young adult material, imagining what are, while fictional, children is a bit unsettling. I’m saying this as someone who has read, and still reads a good amount of YA novels. There are ways that these portions can and have been written and produced that could be just as effective in the storyline without being the same level of explicit. This portion of the writing seems to be written for shock value’s sake, which makes me question the point of it for the artistry and the medium as a whole.
Which really is the social responsibility portion of this podcast and all media that works to portray and engage teenagers. It’s difficult to have young adults play their age in any professional acting capacity for labor reasons. We’re already used to seeing adults portray children in these high school, “risky behavior” shows like Euphoria or Gossip Girl. However, that leans into losing the shock value of children in high-risk behavior and further adultifying children outside of media. Especially the continued adultification of young women. Do we want podcasts to fall into this cultural pitfall as well?
Podcasts and books are more visceral in their ingestion than tv is and sure, I’ve read some Young Adult books that engage in sex, but none of them felt as uncomfortable as Academy does. They have shown themselves to be more creative with the delivery than Academy chooses to be. This podcast sits, in my opinion, as explicit. So is it really for young adults, because it’s about teenagers? Or is it a podcast for adults that just happens to be about teenagers?
I think this podcast is entertaining and good when you look at it as a whole. The story is engaging, the acting is great, and the plot is unfolding well as you listen to each episode. It honestly just sits in a cultural pitfall of the entertainment industry. If this was set in college, for young adults in the sense of the “new adult”, ages 18-30, there would be less gray area in the sense of its explicit nature. Especially considering Young Adult has established itself in a specific age range.
If you’d like to listen to Academy the whole series is available on Wondrery+, otherwise check it out on Podlink Here.
As a reminder, if you hit the subscribe button and sign up you’ll receive The Monthly Magpie for free, which is a once-a-month update of all of the podcasts I’ve reviewed. Currently, I’m also starting The Magpie Journals as an attempt to bring back blogging in the era of social media downfall. Keep an eye out, and thanks for reading!