Pods save the screen

Pods save the screen

By Michael Pickard
May 29, 2024


Podcasters are television’s new favourite criminal investigators. Jez Scharf and Alex Metcalf, showrunners of Netflix series Bodkin, speak to DQ about this new trend and explain how a trio of podcasters seek to unearth an Irish town’s hidden secrets in the seven-part thriller.

In ITV drama Karen Pirie, the titular police detective is tasked with reopening a historic murder investigation after a podcaster starts a provocative series based on new information surrounding the case.

Meanwhile, upcoming BBC drama The Jetty also features a podcaster’s attempts to delve into a missing persons cold case, leaving Jenna Coleman’s Detective Ember Manning to piece together how it is connected to a devastating house fire and an illicit ‘love’ triangle between a man in his 20s and two underage girls.

Then there’s Only Murders in the Building. For three seasons, the Hulu and Disney+ series has followed Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as a trio of true crime fans who turn detectives themselves when they decide to investigate a series of mysterious deaths around their exclusive New York apartment building, recording their own podcast as they go. A fourth season arrives in August.

Just as audiences have turned their attention to podcasts – and true crime stories, in particular – so too have television creators enlisted podcasters to take criminal investigations into their own hands and play the police at their own game.

Alex Metcalf

One more example is Bodkin, a seven-part comedic thriller that arrived on Netflix earlier this month. In the show, a trio of strangers come together to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of three strangers in the titular idyllic Irish coast town 25 years earlier.

Dove (Siobhán Cullen) is a journalist sent to the fictional town to help podcaster Gilbert (Will Forte) produce his next hit audio series, supported along the way by researcher Emmy (Robyn Cara). But as they start to make inroads in the local community, making as many enemies as friends, they discover the real story is much bigger – and weirder – than they could have imagined.

The series comes from British creator Jez Scharf and American executive producer Alex Metcalf, who are also both co-showrunners and teamed up to tell a story about telling stories, and how podcasts walk a line between truth and fiction.

“Yes, podcasting is a huge thing in true crime, but Bodkin is really about the responsibility of the podcaster and when you tell a story, whose story is it to tell, and what are the ramifications of telling that story?” Metcalf tells DQ. “That is the journey Gilbert goes through. Dove will come to the story, tell the story and leave, because that’s what journalists do. They move on to the next thing.

“But there’s this interesting, odd responsibility for a podcaster because the truth is a more mutable thing than it is in classical journalism. There’s this really interesting friction between story and truth.”

As they both quickly found out, however, “the number-one challenge of podcasters investigating is that no one is compelled to speak to them, so it becomes much trickier than a traditional detective show,” Scharf says. “We were always having to think of other ways they could find out information.”

L-R: Bodkin stars Robyn Cara, Siobhán Cullen and Will Forte

“There’s a balance because you’ve got journalism, which is a fact-based institution, and you’ve got podcasting, which is sort of journalism and sort of not. And truth is a little more mutable,” Metcalf adds. “So Gilbert and Dove inhabit two poles of telling a story. One is all about facts and one is all about what people say about the event. That’s really what we are trying to get at – the importance of story and where the truth might lie between these two poles of Gilbert and Dove. Emmy is in the middle, trying to figure out what she wants to do and where she wants to go and what her life means.”

The seeds of the idea behind Bodkin were first planted 10 years ago, when Scharf started commuting from London to Ireland to work with a film producer. He then became invested in Irish culture, particularly literature, and the “absurdist, black comedy tone” many Irish stories have.

During his commutes, he listened to a lot of true crime podcasts – one example is S Town – while he also recognised himself as an outsider coming to Ireland who actually knew very little about the country and its history.

Jez Scharf

“So the story of three outsiders coming in and being humbled by their experiences, but made better for it, was mirroring my experience,” he says. “I’d worked with a lot of Irish writers, so I was very aware of the super amount of talent that was available in Ireland. And we were very lucky that WIPP, Higher Ground and Netflix were so supportive of our desire to have Irish writers in the room and to really focus on Irish casting.”

In fact, Scharf was told Bodkin was Netflix’s first international writers room, with writers from the US and Ireland meeting via Zoom to try to tell a story “that felt really Irish, but was in an American cadence, in terms of the propulsion and the structure of American TV,” he says. “Every part of this experience has been really wonderful and fun.”

In terms of the cast, American Forte and English actor Cara were also outsiders among the mostly Irish ensemble, as Metcalf and Scharf sought to double-down on their commitment to making Bodkin a truly Irish series. Barack and Michelle Obama are among the show’s executive producers, with their Higher Ground company producing the series alongside WIIP.

“We were very cognisant of our responsibility to both the truth of Ireland and the perception of Ireland, which is very much Gilbert’s character,” Metcalf says. “He comes wanting this fabulous Irish experience, which he does not get. But we were super conscious of it. Half the writers in the room were Irish, the other half American, and we had a lot of conversations along the way, specifically with the crew and with everybody involved, about what we’d done in the scripts and how that landed in an Irish context. We understood the American context, obviously, but it was very important to us to see it from an Irish context as well, to make sure we were being honest to Ireland as it actually exists, rather than the idea of it.”

The duo also wanted to tell specific stories about each of the three central characters, as they all present versions of themselves in the beginning that don’t hold up by the end of the series.

The trio come together to investigate the disappearance of three strangers

“We always imagined Gilbert as a guy who could sit down next to anyone and have a great conversation, and he’s just charming and charismatic and super interested,” Scharf says. “But as we tease in the pilot, there’s a much more calculating brain underneath that puppy-dog-spirit exterior.

“With Dove, who she is is equally a big mystery of the show. Why is she the way she is and why does she see the world in such black and white? That again speaks to the two sides to the coin we were trying to explore. And then, between the two of them, you need an Emmy. You need someone who’s looking at both of them and being like, how do I exist in this? What is the perspective I should take in this world? Ultimately, her realisation is that the adults in the room don’t really know what they’re doing.”

Scharf breaks down the story into three movements, where the trio first turn up in Bodkin to investigate the mystery before looking at themselves to determine who they are and why are they there. Then by the end, the show seeks to turn the mirror back on the audience to explore how people can define themselves by the stories they tell.

The specifics of the series changed multiple times in the writers room. “Once we discovered eel smuggling, our heads exploded and clearly we needed to include that,” Metcalf says of one particular plot point.

The show’s focus on the Samhain festival taking place in Bodkin was also a late addition, having not featured at all in the original script. “So things changed a lot,” Metcalf acknowledges. “While the characters and the deeper sensibility of the show remains very true to what Jez originally wrote, a lot of the specifics changed over our conversations and our time together, both the two of us and with the other writers.”

Bodkin is named for the fictional idyllic Irish coastal town where it is set

Scharf recalls one meeting where Metcalf told him Bodkin should explicitly avoid any flashbacks. “The genius of that idea is that you have to believe what people are saying,” he says. “So everyone is telling their story and we can never quite discern who is telling the truth and what is real. That led us into, ‘Well, how do we access Dove’s backstory if we can’t go to flashback?’

“It’s that funny thing of setting yourself rules when you write a story, and it leads you to much better choices. Also, we knew at an early stage that we wanted to blow up the festival, and then we wanted eels to rain down on everyone. There was a lot of time working out, ‘Well, we absolutely have to do that. How do we get there?’”

While there aren’t any flashbacks, Bodkin does lean further into its podcaster premise by having Gilbert narrate parts of the series as if the audience were listening to his finished podcast.

“We wanted to sense that, throughout the show, he’d been recording it, he’d been thinking about it, he’d been making it,” Scharf says. “What I would say is we weren’t interested in making a satire of true crime podcasts. I hope that doesn’t come across in the show. We wanted to speak in a bigger way about stories, how we as people are all just made of stories. Stories form our identities, they form a culture, they form our community, and we wanted to speak more broadly to how we do it. Rather than satirising stories about violence, we want to explore the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and the unintended violence we can do to ourselves and others.”

As co-showrunners, Metcalf and Scharf “basically did everything together.” That meant covering all rewrites and making decisions across production.

The seven-episode thriller debuted on Netflix earlier this month

“Given that we were lumped together in terms of I have a lot more experience than Jez, and Jez needed somebody who had that experience in order to do the show, it was an arranged marriage. But as an arranged marriage, it works really well,” Metcalf says. “We still talk to each other every day. We have a great relationship. It’s interesting that it works so well, but it really did.”

But while making a series about podcasters, were there ever any plans to release an accompanying podcast of their own?

“We had big plans. We had very big plans,” admits Scharf. “We wanted to do a narrative podcast and pretend to do a behind-the-scenes thing, and then as we’re interviewing the actors, the directors and the HODs, we slowly learn that someone on set has disappeared and everyone is trying to cover it up. And then we realised that’s as much work as the show.”

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