Anyone with a genuine interest in podcasts eventually happens upon audio dramas, which come in many varieties. Some have storylines ranging from lighthearted to ambiguous, but most have the essential elements that keep a story flowing. My curiosities always lead back to the plot, the setting, and the overall progression of the characters, though quite a few lose me in their filibustering narratives. Perhaps all those years at the university studying literature have finally come to fruition. The affinity for Shakespeare and the greatest novels and stories ever written sets the bar very high, as one might imagine. Therefore, it should be no surprise a person like myself would be finicky when choosing audio dramas to indulge in.
Audio dramas became a thing when I found some old CBS radio detective stories on podcast revivals. The horn lines dramatizing shock and awe and the ever confident detective stereotype had me hanging on every word. I could envision the offices, the bars, the clacking shoes on the pavement, running, chasing, cocking the gun, and taking aim before firing at the bad guy. The scenes played out so vividly in my imagination, I’m smiling just thinking about it. This is why out of all the many amazing audio dramas out there, I put Neon Nights: The Arcane Files of Jack Tracer in a special class.
It’s fair to state there are other very well produced noir style detective audio dramas (like the fascinating Roswell BC, for example), and many deserve to be written about. Right now, however, it’s Jack Tracer in the spotlight. This show delves into many offbeat motifs and peculiar themes including interdimensional travel, run-ins with almost human robots, and combating agents of the underworld (literally). Of course, there’s the complicated love interest Red (and her parallel world double, Scarlet), who both stabilizes and destabilizes the balance among the characters she comes in contact with. Such as the main character, Jack Tracer, who generally faces certain doom on a regular basis in order to meet his ever-changing objectives. He is either an adrenaline junkie or truly a “good guy” that simply has to do bad things sometimes to set things right -all while staying cool as a cucumber. At first, I thought Jack Tracer was a simple, one-track mind type of guy with a raging fire in his belly kept well hidden, but the more I listened to the show, the less I thought of him in simplistic terms and now realize he’s a logically sane person surrounded by a motley of bizarre individuals, each with their own style of hustle.
To say this show is well written would be a bit of an understatement because it is quite apparent the writers are careful about the details and their connection to the overall plot in the story, which really materializes in season 2 . One can truly enjoy the razzle dazzle of its dark and sometimes kooky humor, especially in the heated arguments between friendly and not-so friendly characters, the over-the-top soliloquies and investigations of the quintessential bad guys -such as the formidable mafioso type Max McQueen. No topic is too taboo and clearly the show’s producers love experimenting with pivots and orbiting resolutions, even if they do so at the subconscious level (wink-wink). Jack Tracer may be at the center of this most amusing audio drama, but there are a cache of characters that add nuances galore, which all have some very provocative and exotic subplots of their own. Listening to this show gives an odd effect of nostalgia kneaded with more modern sci-fi concepts. However, the real story about Jack Tracer and his perhaps unintended mission to outsmart the powerful Max McQueen has less to do with the ghoulish nature of his foes and more to do with the humanistic (and sometimes altruistic) propensities. As this story heads into its third (and final) season, I am hopeful the show’s writers will simplify the plot and peel back the layers of these intriguing and alluring characters.
I reached out to the show’s producers, Rachel Craig and Will Snyder, and they graciously took the time to answer some questions about the show.
Q: Give some background on the character Jack Tracer and why he is so cool and calm even when he is facing certain death?
A: We styled Jack Tracer after the hard-boiled detective trope, a man who has seen so much violence, he has become cynical to it all. At least, that’s how we originally styled Jack, but over time, I feel like Jack has become less of a tough, gritty detective, and more of a man who feels lost to everything and doesn’t really know if he belongs anywhere and wants to find answers to why death is always out for him. So it’s less Jack is cool and calm; he is usually terrified, and has more of an apathetic attitude toward death. The only thing that really keeps him going is his devotion to Red, and he will not stop until he gets back to her, whether death is staring him in the face or not.
Q: Jack Tracer faces unusual enemies. Though it is set in a place and time like that of old detective shows, many of the themes are unconventional (like tracking down shady interdimensional and paranormal characters). Can you give us a hint on some characters Jack Tracer will face in future episodes?
A: We are wrapping up our second season soon and Max McQueen will definitely be a major factor in the finale along with some surprises. We will be making a third season and then ending the show. The third season will go back to more of a supernatural element and I am toying around with the idea of including some Judeo-Christian mythology.
Q: Where do you draw from -for the bulk of the themes you feature on the show? And are there authors/books you are especially a fan of that inspire this creative process?
A: When Rachel and I were first conceiving the show, I was becoming a fan of noir fiction while Rachel has been a big horror fanatic for a while, so we thought why not combine the two. Sort of X-Files meets Philip Marlowe. I had also read a few noir novels and watched a few noir films to sort of gain a sense of the themes. For our antagonists, I am more of a fan of classic movie monsters as well as mythology, so vampires and demons became our go-to villains for the first season. When it came to our second season, I wanted to move in a more sci-fi direction while also keeping the pulpy element. So, we thought dieselpunk would be a great direction to go in. I am a big fan of the Fallout series of video games (which is funny because they also have an audio drama built into Fallout 4 called the “The Silver Shroud”) so that was a big inspiration for the second season. I also love the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons which include evil robots, mad scientists, and dieselpunk inspired vehicles.
Q: Walk us through the process of “concept” for an episode to the “writing” to the “recording and editing” of the show. How long, generally, does it take to produce an episode?
A: Right so, our first season was definitely a learn as you go process. When we first devised the concept of the show, we: a) didn’t realize how big of a community audio drama was, and b) didn’t really know how to make one. So I just “did my best” for the first few episodes. At the time, I thought this show was going to be completely non-serial. Jack faces a different enemy on each episode without a larger plot, but then I thought that might get boring after a while, so it was during the writing of The Man in Black episode that I decided to create an overall villain. The first season was definitely also more of a “oh shit we need to figure out what our next episode is going to be” and we’d have to rush out something sometimes without giving it the proper workshopping it may have needed. Thankfully, we fixed this in our second season by hiring a full writing staff with each assigned an episode. Late last year, we had each writer create an outline, present it as a group, and figure out what each episode needed to get everyone on the same page but also give some leeway in case the original direction of their episode veered in another direction. Our upcoming episode written by John Wencel is a great example of this, he had an idea on what we wanted to write about, but in the months leading up to it, he was inspired by earlier episodes to make changes and now we have something really fun with very cool twists. Our recording and editing process is a bit unconventional, I think. I could be wrong but I think most audio dramas record a single season all at once and then edit everything before they even release the first episode. What we do is record a single episode in one day with the episode being in 4–5 parts. Then I edit the parts individually the week before each part drops. I sort of did this on accident when I didn’t know what direction the show was going, but now I discovered it works for me, so I keep doing it that way. All in all, one episode takes around 2 months as we release bi weekly.
Q: Jack Tracer is under the Evil Kitten Production group. What other shows are under Evil Kitten?
A: Evil Kitten Co-founder Rachel also produces a horror anthology series called Midnight Horror. She writes original shows or adapts classic horror along with reviewing horror films in her Midnight Movie-sodes. We are also soon releasing a new audio drama written by the very talented Aaron Sarka called Project NOVA. I don’t want to give a lot away on Project NOVA but you can find a trailer for it on our website www.evilkittenproductions.com
Q: Unlike other audio dramas that promote others in the AD community at the end credits of the show, yours has a spotlight right in the middle of the episode. Why did you decide to do this?
A: When I decided to start doing our “Audio Drama Spotlight” segment, it was created from frustration with the Audio Drama Twitter community. I would notice that there are a handful of really popular ADs getting most of the attention on Twitter (albeit deservedly so) while there were a ton of REALLY good shows either trying to get their feet in the door or just wanting to expand their current listenership. So I thought, “well we now have a pretty large listener base, and I want other people to listen to these shows, why not feature them on our show?” Why we put it in the middle? Because I believe most people push stop as soon as the credits start.
Q: In today’s podcast landscape, there seems to be new shows popping up all the time. Do you see this as a renaissance of podcasting and do you think there’s a ceiling we’ll eventually hit in regards to interest in audio dramas?
A: I’m happy that there are so many audio dramas popping up all the time. I actually feel guilty because my time is basically limited to the 45 minute train rides I take to and from work so I have to be choosy on what shows I listen to, while for example our marketing manager Aaron is able to listen to multiple shows a day. So for him, the more the merrier. I don’t think interest will go down, but I do wonder if there will be an oversaturation. Again, there are some shows that are so incredibly popular and have a massive fan following and I fear that these shows will be the only ones associated with audio drama while smaller shows will struggle to get noticed. Thankfully overall, the AD community is crazy supportive of one another so there will always be an audience for it.
Q: Many of the readers of this article will likely be producers of other shows, and in many productions, there is something “magical” or at least “special” that happens with cast members and others involved in the production which makes it all worthwhile. What is that “magic” for Jack Tracer and, if you can, share with us why it matters to you so much to continue working laboriously on a show such as this one?
A: The one thing that truly makes it special for me is that I have control over it while at the same time, surrounding myself with wonderful folks who give me input on how to improve Neon Nights. I am also a stage actor, and the main reason the show was created was that myself and Rachel had come off of some pretty bad theatre productions and had become discontented with the whole acting scene in general, so we thought “Hey, let’s just make our own thing.” I had done a little bit of podcasting previous to Neon Nights so I had somewhat of a knack for it and now its 2 years later and still going. It’s just so relieving getting to come up with stuff as a group and compromise ideas instead of having a writer or director basically say “my way or the highway” even when it’s not working. I don’t like dictating the direction of the show. I’d rather find it.
Q: And lastly, what one or two things about the characters on the Neon Nights audio drama do you suggest people pay special attention to as the story continues to unfold?
A: Definitely get ready for season three, it’s going to be wild and be ready for some more diversity among our supporting characters.
Sifting through a plethora of audio dramas can be like playing darts with blindfolds on. Thankfully, given what is revealed in this article about Neon Nights: The Arcane Files of Jack Tracer, you can be certain this show is quite entertaining. I highly recommend going on iTunes or practically any podcast platform and subscribing to this show. But I must warn you it is highly addictive -from the intro music popping up in my dreams to fantasizing about being a private detective. So, explore the many, many other free audio dramas available and if you really love a show, support them by becoming a patron. Of course, once you start listening to Jack Tracer, the show has its “Audio Drama Spotlight” to expand your audio drama options as well. Enjoy!
JV Torres is the author of the textbook “I Want To Learn English,” and has written for various publications including the Huffington Post. He also produces the audio drama “The Rise of King Asilas.” Contact JV via email at: email@example.com.