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Brilliant highs and disappointing lows with Arden

Arden has to be one of the hardest audio dramas for me to review. Not because it was inherently bad, but rather because it was both fantastic and frustrating at the same time.

Arden starts off strong with a great premise: Ten years ago, Julie Capsom, a starlet in her prime, disappears in the middle of the night, leaving a lot of her own blood and the torso of an ex in the trunk. Now, two “investigators” take a deep look at the case through a mockucast (is that the term?) lens.

The murder mystery is an interesting one – perplexing, relevant (you find out why later) and shocking. The investigators hosting the podcast are… not. And the show is much more about the podcast hosts than it is about the missing Julie Capsom. And thus begins the dichotomy of great and frustrating – which stays all the way through the end.

Don’t get me wrong – there isn’t anything wrong with the acting or quality of this show – it’s very technically sound. And the characters of Bea and Brenda are likable enough to where the first few episodes are a plenty entry point.

However, the further you get into it (specifically episodes 3 through 7), you start to see the cracks. Arden does not know when enough is enough.

Each episode is approximately 45 minutes. Okay, fine. I like my Audio Drama episodes a bit shorter, but for an interesting mystery, I’d take a 3 hour episode. Unfortunately, a large majority of that 45 minutes is made up of bickering and banter between Bea and Brenda. (Alliteration is fun.)

Unlike my fellow reviewer, who wasn’t able to connect with the characters at all, I actually found them fun for the most part. But even initially enjoying their dynamic quickly devolved the longer I sat through a lot of back and forth with very little substance, not only in character development, but also in actual murder-mystery plot progression.

For a large portion of the show, it’s almost like Bea and Brenda accomplish nothing and find out no new information about the case. So much so, in fact, that I initially wrote a note about 18 minutes into episode 6: “When will they get to the case?” and then followed that note with another 20 minutes later: “They didn’t.”

Seriously. Episode 6 is all about the back and forth of the characters, until the last minute. (Which is then summed up in a few seconds during the recap of episode 7 – so, all in all, a pretty skippable episode.)

Which is unfortunate, because I wanted to like this show. I wanted to get into and be captivated with the character development alongside the murder mystery plot, but it just didn’t happen. There is too much bickering, too much banter that bogs down each and every episode. And when you finally start to see development between the two characters, nothing really pans out.

Yet, when the dynamic duo does finally get to the case, there are moments of real intrigue and genius. The sections where they learn of Julie’s potential sexual abuse are a poignant development in the case. And eventually, spoiler warning, they actually learn what happens to Julie – and it’s the best episode of the show.

Episode 11 flips the format of the show on its head. No longer are we listening to a fake podcast following the case, but we’re with Julie as she goes through every experience, grows up, and eventually fakes her dead. It’s brilliant, sad, and beautifully told. Listeners are easily captivated by Julie’s story and deeply care about her character development, all in the span of a single episode – something that the rest of the audio drama couldn’t do in 10 full episodes. Then, to make the final minutes of the episode even better, Bea knocks at Julie’s door. So. Damn. Good. (In fact, I think this should have been the ending of Season 1.)

As fantastic as this episode is, it brings to light a huge problem for the show – the best episode completely abandons the framework, goes outside the plot device of a podcast, and makes the audience ask how and why they’re listening to this. If the creators are going to make it painfully obvious that we’re listening to a recording, that better be the frame for the entire show. Otherwise, why even have the frame in the first place?

And finally, after we learn of Julie’s new life, feel connected to her character and could potentially be happy with the beautiful way the series ended – we have episode 12. Episode 12 completely undermines everything we’d hoped for in episode 11. And although I am the last person to want a happy ending in a series, I really found the way all of the events played out here to be the second biggest let down of my audio drama review career (the biggest let down is Limetown Season 2).

I’m not saying that Arden should have had a happy ending. In fact, it makes sense that it wouldn’t. But I am saying that, as a listener, I found the two main characters of the show completely screwing over a character who wants nothing but peace to only put a wedge further between my connection to Bea and Brenda.

Overall, Arden is not a bad show. It’s technically well done, has a great premise and an interesting overarching plot, but it’s heavily weighed down by close to 30 minutes of bickering per episode, which only ever improves in episodes 10 through 12.

The murder mystery quickly becomes a sub plot, and even for people who like to focus on the two leads’ character development, it’s a slow, painful crawl towards anything meaningful. It also doesn’t help that by making the show a comedy around a serious topic, it sort of cheapens the whole respect for this girl’s potential murder.

Would I recommend the show? Sure. You may have a very different opinion than I do. But even if you go through the same frustrations as we did here at AudiOhm, it’s worth it just to experience episode 11. (But then… don’t listen to episode 12 if you can help it.) Beautiful and frustrating, Arden can’t see the forest through the trees.

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