Imagine every same-sex ‘ship’, gender bend, and queer undertone in every piece of media you’ve ever consumed all of a sudden became canonical. Then imagine someone took all that queerness, wrote it into a script, and assembled a team of versatile actors, vibrant storytellers and innovative sound designers to bring that vision to life.
Co-creators Sophie Kaner and Kevin Vibert were tired of imagining, so they forged their own reality in the form of The Penumbra Podcast. The bi-weekly, serialized audio drama — which is currently on hiatus – is a mix of anthological radio plays and the longform story of Juno Steel, the bisexual noir detective of Mars.
Without revealing any spoilers, I can say the show follows P.I. Juno Steel’s quest to uncover the corruption in Hyperion City, where the lines between crime and law blur, the rich rule and everyone, it seems, has at least one skeleton in their closet.
What starts out as the investigation of a high profile murder turns into a mystery millennia in the making, revealing a city built on corruption and a soil rich with ancient Martian secrets. As he races against time to keep his antagonizers at bay—such as the histrionic Kanagawa family of movie moguls, who built an empire out of the prison-to-primetime special pipeline, or Mayor Pilot Pereyra, the world’s greatest (and perhaps only) nonbinary supervillain and politician— Detective Steel must also outrun his own traumas, which seem to haunt him no matter how far away he travels from his childhood home in the decrepit ruins of Oldtown.
But even more troubling, perhaps, than the monsters in the ground and in his head, is Juno Steel’s sudden infatuation with the cunning and mysterious Peter Nureyev― if that is his real name. Equal parts friend, foe and lover, Nureyev blurs the line between evil and good more than ever before. It’s a trend that continues throughout the series as Detective Steel tries to save the world riding on his shoulders, only for the body count to double and the conspiracies to continue.
Other anthological storylines within the series include the Second Citadel, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of three monster-fighting knights; The Coyote of the Painted Plains, a Sapphic take on a traditional Western; and a series of horror shorts such as “Shaken,” which I cannot speak for as, admittedly, I have been too scared to listen to them in full. (Horror isn’t my style, but that’s okay; at The Penumbra, there’s something for everyone.)
The show can at times be corny, tongue-and-cheek, and filled with tropes, like the brooding detective or the galant knight in shining armor. But those stereotypical caricatures make the show what it is. According to the Penumbra, their goal is to tell the stories you love in ways you’ve never heard before, all while tackling social issues such as gender expression, sexual orientation, mental illness, and institutional corruption.
If audio dramas are television for your ears, then The Penumbra is a Cartoon Network primetime special. Young, fun, fantastical and, most notably, inclusive, The Penumbra Podcast is a must-listen for young queer people, people who love podcasts, and anyone with a pulse and Wi-fi.