Does ‘Bodkin’ Love True-Crime Podcasts or Want to Make Fun of Them?

In Netflix‘s new series Bodkin, hard-bitten newspaper reporter Dove (Siobhán Cullen) is forced to team up with veteran podcaster Gilbert (Will Forte) to investigate a 25-year-old mystery in the eponymous Irish town. The reluctant partners clash on everything, not least of which is that Dove thinks they can, and should, find out what really happened in Bodkin back in the day.

“Have you ever listened to a podcast where they actually solve it?” Gilbert asks, incredulous. “I need diversions. Red herrings. Human interest. The stuff that people actually care about.”

Gilbert isn’t wrong that true crime podcasts (and true crime books and documentaries, for that matter) almost never close the case independent of law-enforcement. But his belief that the audience only tangentially cares about the mystery itself is one seemingly shared by Bodkin itself. The show is vaguely interested in why three people disappeared on the same night the town was hosting its annual Samhain festival. Mostly, though, it cares about Dove, Gilbert, their researcher Emmy (Robyn Cara), and the people of Bodkin, as well as the alternately quirky and menacing atmosphere of this little village in West Cork. One interview subject wonders if this is going to be “a podcast that pretends to be about one thing, but is really about something else,” and their suspicion is more or less proven correct.

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Podcasting is a professional arena that movies and television have had a mixed track record of fictionalizing in recent years. Only Murders in the Building works because it’s an explicit parody of true crime podcasts, and because it’s clear throughout that the podcast is meant to be terrible. (This is, by and large, a safer approach than insisting your show-within-the-show is a masterpiece — which is why audiences are still happily streaming 30 Rock, whose fake SNL was supposed to be bad, while Aaron Sorkin’s painfully sincere Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was an infamous flop.) Often, though, stories about fictional podcasters feel like they’re made by people who recognize that the medium is popular, but don’t quite understand why. 

I spent most of the seven episodes of Bodkin wondering whether Scharf thought Gilbert was good at his job or a buffoon who deserved the contempt of the cynical Dove. Much of the evidence pointed to the latter theory. He’s played by Will Forte, whose specialty is playing overconfident clowns, and whose performance at times seems to point in a MacGruber direction. Gilbert’s podcast narration, which bookends each episode of the TV show, is melodramatic and riddled with cliches, like the time he explains, “The problem with questions is the answers. Sometimes, the more you learn, the less you know.”

On the other hand, Forte gets to dial back the silliest aspects of his performance over time, as we discover that Gilbert’s real life is a lot more fragile and complicated than the persona he projects when he’s in front of a microphone. And the other characters at times speak just like him — “There are some questions that aren’t made to be answered,” one suspect tells law-enforcement in a later episode — in a way suggesting that creator Jez Scharf and company(*) think this is perfectly fine dialogue.

(*) Bodkin is the first scripted series from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, after their deal with Netflix has previously led to documentaries and the Julia Roberts/Mahershala Ali/Ethan Hawke film Leave the World Behind

Bodkin isn’t quite as confused as it seems on the question of how seriously we should take Gilbert and his podcast. Still, the series is a tricky balance of tones and ideas that works at some times, but not at others. And its own interest in the mystery of what happened that night of the Samhain festival comes and goes. But many of the performers do interesting and appealing work — even Forte’s quite good when the show allows Gilbert to be a person rather than a caricature — and the town itself feels fully realized in a manner that lives up to Gilbert’s belief that true crime audiences care more about people and places than they care about whodunnit. 

Bodkin is a strange place, caught between old traditions (everyone keeps talking about the ways that Samhain inspired the most famous rituals of Halloween) and the modern world (a wealthy Bodkin native has returned from Silicon Valley to build an enormous server farm on the town’s outskirts). There are complicated, interconnected backstories between the various witnesses and suspects, with David Wilmot from Station Eleven particularly strong as Seamus Gallagher, who’s seemingly at the center of every subplot. Almost every time a character or place in town is on the verge of becoming too self-consciously twee — the local convent has a yoga studio, and two nuns in the kitchen who trained under Jamie Oliver — the show finds a way to reveal some specific, extremely human detail about them. And the character arcs for the three investigators, and the way that Gilbert’s polish, Dove’s relentlessness, and Emmy’s optimism each rubs off on the other two, can be very endearing, especially towards the end.


But the show understandably has to keep returning to the mystery, which feels overly complicated even for seven hours of television. Perhaps this is itself a tribute to the kind of true crime podcast Gilbert has come to specialize in, where those red herrings have to do a lot of the work. If so, it would at least solve the mystery of whether Bodkin has affection for podcasting, or is gently mocking the form. 

All seven episodes of Bodkin are now streaming on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole season.