Today we have with us Sara Ghaleb, Christopher Dole, and Emily VanDerWerff, creators of the true crime satirical comedy Arden. We discussed Shakespeare, the ethics of true crime, and how writers rooms affect the creative process.
Hello and welcome to the Inn! First of all, how are you all and how have you been?
This is Emily! I handle most of our media requests and will be answering these questions (though Christopher and Sara will tell me if I’ve really messed things up). I am just a little sleepy.
Christopher: Tired but busy. Good busy. Season two busy.
Sara: Tired but thrilled to be here.
(Are you sensing a theme??)
Could you tell us a bit about yourselves, your journeys, and how you became part of the Arden team?
Emily: The idea for Arden originated with me, though it was nothing more than “there should be a true crime podcast that has a bickering central duo like on Moonlighting.” But I guess I became part of the team by having that idea one night when I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been writing both fiction and nonfiction for most of my life, and in my other life, I’m a journalist and cultural critic, whose work has appeared in numerous outlets, most notably The A.V. Club and Vox. I also published a book about The X-Files (right while we were launching Arden season one, because I have a fine sense of timing). Arden is filled with all of our obsessions, but season one, especially, is built around my own fascination with true crime cases where a person simply disappeared, under odd circumstances.
Christopher: So Emily and I had previously collaborated on a few scripts, and I had a fair bit of experience from working in lit management and in development at some small production companies. She came to me with that basic idea and I loved the conflict it immediately set up. It just seemed such a fun take on the genre – you have characters, you have themes of narrative reliability, you have the tone. In fleshing it out, I brought in the Shakespeare elements (we’ll get into that later, since you ask!) and we created an initial pilot and show bible. That initial pilot ended up not going forward for a number of good reasons (and we took some major turns from said show bible), but even after a few months of no activity we just couldn’t let the idea die. It was just too strong. But we needed a third person to help balance the team out and share some of the workload.
Sara: They asked me to join and I joined. My qualifications are a BFA from NYU Tisch in sitcom writing and also Chris knew I didn’t have anything else going on.
How would you describe Arden to new listeners?
Arden is a fake true crime podcast about a missing teenage starlet, the mysterious torso in the trunk of her car, and the two investigators who might just solve the case if they could stop arguing (and/or flirting) with each other. Bea Casely is an award-winning radio journalist who’s always been fascinated with Julie Capsom, the missing girl. Brenda Bentley was the first cop on the scene the snowy night Julie disappeared. They each have their motives for exploring the case, but those motives shift and change as they uncover new information and as they get to know each other better.
Along the way, we get to meet the other folks who work at the radio station with our main investigators, including their hyper-competent producer, the world’s greatest assistant, and an eccentric billionaire so eccentric he has “eccentric billionaire” printed on his business cards.
Despite the “fake true crime” appellation, Arden features a ton of comedy, a spark of romance, and a sprinkling of drama. It is a true blend of the three of our styles and influences, and we’re so excited people seem to like it!
Was there a character you enjoyed writing the most?
Emily: All these characters are so much fun to write, but I think the character whose voice is closest to my own (and thus easiest to tap into) is Bea’s. She, like me, is about 90 percent insufferable, and that is why I love her. And in writing season two, I’m gravitating more and more toward Pamela, who is so refreshingly no-nonsense, but also really weird. Again, you can read at least a little bit about me into this answer.
Christopher: It could be a whole host of characters (shout-out to Gerald Abernathy) but I think today I’m going to stick up for Brenda. Her brash (and sometimes unearned) confidence in any situation, her willingness to follow any lead to its endpoint, her belief in there being something more out there – it’s so fun to write. Also, Andy. Our rule with Andy is: anything you learn about him raises at least five new questions. It’s great.
Sara: Rosalind and Bea! Bea because I’m loud and pretentious. Rosalind because I’m loud and chaotic. It’s great writing season two because I feel like I really know the Wheyface Team now but there’s still so much room to explore them.
Arden seems to be critical of True Crime and subverts listener expectations with the audio framing device and parody advertisements. What, if anything, are you trying to convey to listeners in addition to the story?
From the earliest, Arden was written about as offering a critical take on the true crime genre. And probably it was inevitable that the show would possess such a quality. All three of us have written criticism, and Emily, at least, is super interested in the true crime genre as a storytelling format (even if it frequently makes her a little uncomfortable).
But what ended up being even more important to the show wasn’t the idea of true crime itself, with all its ethical squishiness. There’s plenty of material there, to be sure, but almost all of it boils down to “these are real people this really happened to, and it’s hard to remember that sometimes when the story is good.” And by and large, Bea and Brenda go about their investigation ethically! At the end of season one (without spoiling), they end up doing the “right” thing. It’s just that by that point, the audience has hopefully realized how these larger ethical questions can break down once you realize there are people involved.
And that is probably what’s really at the core of Arden, and something we’re examining even more in season two. The shape of a story changes depending on who’s telling it, and even in the most objective journalistic recounting of a story, what we understand is shaped by the person who’s doing the reporting. We are all interested in the idea of what it means to shift the narrative lens, to change the idea of objectivity within fiction and nonfiction. It’s just easier to talk about that stuff within true crime, which is a relatively “low stakes” genre in terms of journalism. (Bea and Brenda aren’t war reporters, after all!) And that goes right down to the core of the show – two different voices, trying to tell the same story, in very different ways.
The show appears to derive its name from The Arden Shakespeare, a company that’s been publishing Shakespeare’s work for over a hundred years. Why the Shakespeare retelling angle and how closely does the story follow Romeo & Juliet?
Listeners who’ve listened to all of Arden season one will be aware we took some liberties with the text. Imagine us slyly winking there.
Chris is a massive Shakespeare fan. Well, we all are, but Chris was the one who thought to thread a Shakespearean motif throughout the season, but in so subtle a way that plenty of fans don’t pick up on it on a first listen. (Emily actually didn’t quite get it for a while either, and she’s read Romeo & Juliet, she assures you.)
We don’t ever want to make Shakespeare the center of the show, because the characters, their relationships, and the mysteries they investigate have to be at the core. But we’re also interested in examining just why these stories endure and why people keep twisting and warping them toward their own ends.
Again without spoiling, season two is going to remix some of the central ideas of Hamlet, but in our version, Hamlet is a woman named Dana Hamill. How does this story change with a woman at its center? Quite a bit, actually! And we’re excited to be figuring that out.
(That said, we have frequent discussions as to whether Shakespeare even exists in the Arden universe. There is, however, an in-universe explanation for why the show is called Arden in the first season finale!)
What’s the writing/production process like for you?
Season one was done in a long series of big-gulp weekends, when we’d assemble the cast in a small room with a handful of microphones, and we’d let them go nuts. Our recording engineer (the brilliant Elizabeth Aubert) did a great job of making sure everything sounded “real” even though we were in an office complex. And we were writing literally right up until recording. The very final scene written for the season – something we call “the last supper,” which occurs in the 11th episode – was written mere days before we recorded it in November 2018. But for the most part, the writing and recording occurred in late 2017 and early 2018 (beyond an early pilot script written in 2016, which was mostly scrapped for parts when we began production in earnest).
We are streamlining things a lot for season two. We have hired a writers room, and we’re already so impressed by the work they’re turning in. We’re also hoping to have a more compressed production schedule, and now that we actually know just how complicated post-production is on a project like this (probably the biggest lesson we learned on season one), we’re going to have a better strategy for that, too.
Can we expect Season 2 to pick up where we left off at the end of Season 1, or something different?
Season two features a different case. Dana Hamill’s father died in a tragic situation that sure seems to be murder. But the police in her small Montana hometown officially ruled it an accident, despite having plenty of seemingly incriminating evidence, and only Dana was left to try to figure out what really happened. Then Dana’s mother married Dana’s uncle, her marriage fell apart, and her life fell apart, really. Now, she’s called in Team Arden to get to the bottom of the mystery.
When it comes to our regular characters, Brenda has been gone for a solid year when season two kicks off, Bea and Lorena are closer than ever, and Andy and Pamela are thinking about giving Rosalind (who’s been the one doing most of the reporting on Dana’s story) a shot at co-hosting.
We don’t think it’s spoiling things to say we’ll be bringing these characters back together somehow. But it probably is spoiling things to say that Julie will be back too, in her way.
What are you reading or listening to these days?
Emily: I’m reading Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan. It’s a totally fascinating examination of what a world filled with nanotechnology would look like and how humans might become trapped in what amount to programming loops. It’s a little like Westworld, but from an entirely different point-of-view. I was turned on to it by my latest podcast obsession, Our Opinions Are Correct, a sci-fi discussion podcast hosted by Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz.
Christopher: I’ve recently been re-reading Janesville, a really terrific nonfiction book about the struggles in Janesville, WI after the car manufacturing plant in town closes. Really great, broad overlook at all spectrums of society and how economic fallout affects (or doesn’t) everyone. In terms of audio dramas, there are three I’m really digging right now. First off, Victoriocity is having an absolutely killer second season. It’s so funny, it’s wonderfully acted, it’s got a great mystery, and the world-building is phenomenal. The second is Unwell, this great new Gothic mystery from the people who made Our Fair City. It’s setting up a very intriguing world in Mount Absalom, a lot of fun characters (Abbie, the non-binary historian/skeptic is a delight), can’t wait to hear where it goes. Finally, The 12:37 – this really cool new time-traveling train mystery/spy show that’s just started. It’s a time-traveling train mystery/spy show. Sold.
Sara: In terms of literal books, I’m reading biographies about the inventor Marvel “Jack” Whiteside Parsons as research for my non-fiction comedy podcast Historical Hook-Ups (out this summer). The premise of the show is me and 3 other women dish on the sex lives of fascinating figures from history, you know, the exact opposite of my stance against respecting the privacy of individuals in true crime. I contain multitudes. In audio I’m listening to P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves audiobooks and Gaby Dunn’s Bad With Money podcast during my work commute. My main audio-drama listens right now are Vega: a Sci Fi Adventure Podcast and Greater Boston. I am also compelled to tell everyone I meet to give DC’s Legends of Tomorrow a chance!
Thanks for visiting the Inn and chatting with us! Anything you’d like to say to our readers to close off?
Please – if you’ve seen Brenda Bentley, leave a note on our tip line. And keep watching the skies.
About the Arden Team
Sara Ghaleb is a writer and comedian in Los Angeles with a lot of opinions about superheroes. You can find her and her projects @SaraGhaleb, @ArdenPod, & @HistoricalHooks on Twitter, @GhalebComedy, @ArdenPod, & @HistoricalHookUps on Instagram.
Christopher Dole is a writer in Los Angeles, also with a lot of opinions about superheroes (because that’s just our culture now?). You can find him @chrisdole86 on Twitter.
Emily VanDerWerff is the critic at large at Vox, as well as the co-author of the book Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files. She also has written at The A.V. Club, Salon, Grantland, and the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife and ever fluctuating number of cats.