"A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale"
"Welcome to Night Vale", often called "Night Vale" or "WTNV", is a podcast radio drama that debuted in June of 2012. In the summer of 2013, its popularity spread, making it one of the most popular podcasts in the United States. It has also spun off a series of tours, where the radio dramas are enacted on stage, with a Night Vale book being planned for 2015.
The show was created by writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and the voice of Cecil Baldwin. The incidental music for each episode is done by Disparition. Guest writers for the show have included Zach Parsons and Glen David Gold, and guest voices have included Mara Wilson and Jasika Nicole. Despite occasional guest acting and writing, the basic show is just Baldwin reading scripts written by Fink and Cranor, which is a very simple production scheme. Episodes are released twice a month, at the beginning and middle of the month.
The format of the series is of an announcer at a community radio station hosting a show where he talks about local news and events. But this all takes place in the town of Night Vale, a southwestern town where every possible paranormal activity takes place. A school board meeting is described, but the president of the school board is the ominous Glow Cloud, a sentient, glowing ball of energy. A new dog park has opened in town, but neither dogs nor people are allowed to enter, because it is the roaming ground of hooded figures. A candidate for mayor wants to announce his support for children, small business owners, and small children business owners: a candidate who happens to be a five headed dragon. The Boy Scouts are having a ceremony to induct scouts into new ranks, including "Blood Pact Scout" and "Eternal Scout". And all of these events, no matter how outlandish and threatening, are described by Cecil (the name of the character, as well as his voice actor) with the sleepy, quiet tones of an NPR reporter. Much of the immediate humor of the series comes from this, the outlandish and threatening described with deadpan calmness. It could be (and has been) described as a mixture of Twin Peaks, A Prairie Home Companion and The X-Files. And that level of the satire is amusing, but it by itself couldn't carry the show as long and as far as it has. Because that joke would be exhausted in the same way that the clever premise of a Saturday Night Live skit gets exhausted when stretched into a movie. So far, there has been 40 episodes of Welcome to Night Vale, and the show keeps on gaining in popularity.
A word should be said about the format of the average show, to explain how its plot and themes have become more involved as the series progresses. Each show begins with Cecil announcing the event of the week, which is either a normal community event that turns into a supernatural threat, or a supernatural threat that is treated as a community amusement. He then segues (as a real radio announcer would) to other community events and news, such as the traffic report, "Children's Fun Fact Science Corner", "a word from our sponsor", or other interruptions. As he zig-zags back and forth, the background event becomes more pronounced and dangerous, and just at the climax, he announces "The Weather": which is a musical interlude of a band from a random, obscure genre. The program than returns for its denouement, which is often philosophical as much as dramatic. In this basic dramatic structure, other things are thrown in: Cecil's developing romance with Carlos, a scientist who has come to study the town's paranormal activity, Night Vale's rivalry with neighboring town Desert Bluffs, the history of Cecil growing up in Night Vale, and the political and social forces that move behind Night Vale. Things that are mentioned as jokes in early episodes have been drawn out into explorations not only of Night Vale's existential status, but of our own world's as well. The Dog Park, mentioned in the first minute of the first episode, is still a mystery eighteen months later. The story arc is developing, and I find myself wanting to find out what happens to all my favorite characters.
The show is not explicitly political. Or it is so explicitly political that it no longer counts. Government brainwashing, corporate conspiracy and the engineering of reality itself are so explicit and commonplace in the series that it doesn't even require comment. In fact, Cecil says as much himself, when Steve Carlsberg (a town resident that Cecil has an unexplained antipathy towards) writes him a letter saying that the government creates earthquakes, Cecil responds:
You’re not saying anything new, Steve. Of course the sandstorm was created by the government. The City Council announced that this morning. The government makes no secret that they can control the weather and earthquakes, and monitor thoughts and activities. That’s the stuff a big government is supposed to do! Obviously, you have never read the Constitution.
When I was a teenager
in the 1990s
, (and when Cranor and Fink presumably were, as well), conspiracy theories had a certain cachet and authority to them, a sign that someone had thought beyond the world as presented by the mass media
. In recent years, conspiracy theorists have lost all cachet, becoming the people who are easily flattered by feelings of being "special", and being a sign of gullibility rather than cunning. We have all heard every conspiracy theory available, and I think most people of my generation accept that the world around us is too complicated to be set down to any conspiracy. And this seems to hold true of the world of Night Vale: often it is the randomness of its world that is truly horrifying. Many of the creepiest moments in the series come not from identification of an external, supernatural threat, but rather to existential horror and a sense of the eerie
I can't say why I am so enamoured of Welcome to Night Vale, or why I think it is so important. Part of it is just how impressive that this show has done so well. Besides the cost of producing the live shows, the production budget on the show was practically nothing. In a world where a 100 million dollars can be spent on a movie that fails to make a cultural splash, it is great that a show with no production or marketing budget can become a phenomena. And beyond that, for some reason (that I can't quite explain), I think this show is a sign of what the teens are going to be like. This decade has been treated as a continuation of the one before, but I think that the style of storytelling in "Welcome to Night Vale", as well as its manner of success, are a sign of something new and different, that might characterize the decade we are in.
The official site of Night Vale is: