In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Or some weeks (like this one), she tells you what she’s listening to, too. Read the archives here. This week: the new audio fiction podcast Zero Hours.
The end of the world hasn’t arrived yet. Humanity hasn’t driven itself to extinction. The planet hasn’t exploded. Despite all our best efforts, life goes on.
But what feels like the end of the world happens millions of times a day on a more personal level. A marriage crumbles into ruin. Somebody loses their job. A child dies. Your favorite baseball team makes some boneheaded managing decisions and misses the World Series. You can’t find the chips you want. None of these is literally apocalyptic, but each one can be metaphorically so. Sometimes, that’s as bad as the real thing.
The space of the personal apocalypse is where the new audio fiction podcast Zero Hours thrives. It’s a seven-episode anthology series set across seven centuries and 594 years, beginning in 1722 and ending in 2316. (In between every episode, 99 years pass, so episode two takes place in 1821, episode three takes place in 1920, etc.)
Every episode depicts one of these smaller, personal apocalypses, but none of them actually end humanity (though the last takes place after we’ve gone extinct). The story is probably most similar to David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (and the subsequent film based on it), but really, it’s not quite like any other work of fiction.
Zero Hours is the best project yet from some of the brightest lights in the audio fiction sphere
Despite the centuries-spanning scope of Zero Hours, it’s hauntingly intimate. Each episode consists of one conversation between two people — two sailors exploring the far southern oceans, say, or a married couple in the future considering a new technology that could change their marriage dramatically.
The episodes are never plot-heavy, instead focused on creating contemplative and melancholic moods. When we check in on these characters’ lives, it’s clear that whatever forces have pushed their worlds to the brink were long ago set in motion. Thus, they spend each episode (each of which is slightly under an hour) trying to figure out where they’ve been and where they might be going next.
As a case in point, the season premiere involves an argument between a witch and a reverend in 1722 New England on a long, terrifying night when the world is supposedly going to end. (Spoiler: It doesn’t! We’re still here!) But the conversation is less about the end of the world than it is their personal belief systems and failings. And future episodes are less explicitly about “the end of the world” than they are our struggles to deal with change. After all, the season’s midpoint is the year 2019 — and then it just keeps going.
In its original Greek, the root word that gives us “apocalypse” means “to uncover,” which is to say that it’s often about revealing a secret or deeper truth. Anything can be an apocalypse because anything can reveal something about yourself to you that you’d rather not think about — even if it’s just how much you love your favorite baseball team. (WHY, LOS ANGELES DODGERS, WHY????)
Zero Hours hails from creators Sarah Shachat, Gabriel Urbina, and Zach Valenti, who wrote and directed every episode and have recruited an all-star cast of performers from the audio fiction world. If you don’t listen to a ton of audio fiction podcasts, the actors’ names might not be immediately recognizable, but their performances are nicely restrained, with little of the hamminess that marks too much of the form too often.
(I should note that I have had lunch a few times with this trio for an article I have yet to write, and also that I am co-creator of an audio fiction podcast myself, though Shachat, Urbina, and Valenti have nothing to do with it.)
Shachat, Urbina, and Valenti are among the leading lights of this very new yet also very old form, and they’re among the audio fiction podcast movement’s greatest traditionalists. Their productions are steeped in storytelling ideas taken from the world of radio drama (both the classic shows of the ’30s and ’40s and more modern British radio plays), and they have an intuitive sense of how to let a story shift and breathe in a format where the total lack of visual information can sometimes leave an audience trying to figure out what’s going on.
Occasionally, I was frustrated with anachronistic dialogue in the historical pieces or clumsy exposition, and like all anthology series, I preferred some episodes to others. But those frustrations passed quickly. I especially loved the trio’s ability to figure out every possible meaning of “end of the world.” This isn’t just a series of, say, nuclear disasters or climate change horror stories, but instead one where “the end of the world” could just mean Antarctica or some other place we might call the ends of the earth.
And while I love the three’s previous work (particularly their magnum opus space opera Wolf 359), Zero Hours is my favorite thing they’ve done to date. I’m a longtime fan of end-of-the-world stories as it is, but Zero Hours is something special. Every ending is also a beginning for somebody, even after every last human dies, and we live in the ruins of other people’s apocalypses every single day. To be aware of that is to freeze up at the sheer happenstance of being alive, but we can take little glimpses at the devastation here and there. This series is one of those glimpses.
Zero Hours is available wherever podcasts are available.