Wide Angle

This Year’s Biggest True Crime Podcast Falls Victim to the Wondery Approach

The Apology Line, the network’s latest chart topper, squanders a killer hook and a trove of tape.

The logo for Wondery's The Apology Line with lines moving to indicate sound.
Photo illustration by Slate

The first episode of The Apology Line, the latest hit from the podcast network Wondery, begins with a somber voice intoning a cautionary message: “The following contains descriptions of violence, including sexual violence, and may not be suitable for all listeners.” Call it a content warning, if you like. Really, it’s a boast. Founded in 2016 by former Fox TV executive Hernan Lopez, Wondery has established itself as podcasting’s most reliable purveyor of pulp: true crime potboilers that keep listeners hooked with crisp editing, foreboding musical soundtracks, and the promise that another lurid lurch of the plot is coming right up, on the other side of this ad read.

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Lopez has told interviewers that he realized podcasting was the wave of the future when he heard the first season of Serial, in 2014. His innovation was to strip away the high-minded journalistic stuff—Serial’s pretensions to inform and to edify and to enlighten larger social-political questions—while pumping up the sensationalism: violence, sex, and, ideally, grisly collisions of the two. Money is another essential ingredient. Wondery’s podcasts are often set in the world of affluent white professionals, a shrewd nod, perhaps, to an audience coveted by advertisers. Dirty John is about a con artist posing as an anesthesiologist who dupes the owner of a successful interior design business into a sham marriage. The Shrink Next Door tells the tale of a psychiatrist who allegedly abuses his patients. Dr. Death focuses on cases of outrageous medical malpractice. In the Wondery universe, the Hippocratic oath takes a beating, and haute-bourgeois anxieties are skillfully stoked.

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The Apology Line, whose concluding bonus episode was released on Tuesday, gives the Wondery formula a tweak, touching down in a more bohemian—if still white and upper-middle-class—milieu. It tells the story of Allan Bridge, a New York artist who in 1980 began posting flyers around Lower Manhattan, advertising a novel phone service: “Attention amateurs, professionals, criminals, blue collar, white collar … Get your misdeeds off your chest! Call Apology.” The notice advised callers to hide their identities, saying their statements would be recorded and “played to the public at a time and place to be advertised.” Bridge set up an answering machine, and calls started coming in: confessions by unfaithful spouses, cheating students, and petty thieves; admissions of secret desires and hidden vices; and darker, more disturbing testimonies from individuals who claimed to have committed violent crimes, including murder. Bridge, who concealed his own identity behind the moniker Mr. Apology, sorted through the recordings, edited and organized them according to theme—sex, hatred, humor, addiction, spiritual matters, and so on—and rigged up more answering machines that allowed the public to phone up and listen in. Sometimes Bridge showcased the work in storefront galleries and museums. On one memorable occasion, Bridge, concerned with maintaining his anonymity, attended the opening of an Apology Line installation at the New Museum wearing an absurdly ill-fitting fake beard.

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The result was a project far more engrossing, and enduring, than the modest “experiment” Bridge originally conceived. He kept the Apology Line going for 15 years, compiling a vast archive of tapes, featuring both callers’ messages and his own replies and commentary. It is this primary-source goldmine that powers the podcast. Hearing those decades-old recordings—voices crackling out of the past, disclosing peccadillos and airing guilty consciences—is an eerie experience, and you can understand why Bridge was transfixed by the thing he’d created. The podcast chronicles his increasing obsession—how the border separating Bridge’s life and art gradually eroded, damaging his relationships, draining his finances, and rattling his peace of mind.

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The details come from a well-placed source. The series is narrated by Marissa Bridge, who we learn early on is Allan’s widow, though the circumstances of his death are not disclosed until Episode 6. An artist herself, Marissa is a warm presence, who unfolds the story in a clear, unflashy style. The tale she tells is, among other things, a romance, which begins with a meet cute at a downtown party and stretches through years of courtship and a rocky but rewarding married life.

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A principal cause of strain in the marriage was the Apology Line, and Allan’s fixation on it. Marissa describes how at all hours the sound of callers leaving answering-machine messages echoed through the Bridges’ apartment. Some of those phone calls were scary. In the podcast’s first episode, we hear the rambling monologue of a man who says he has committed numerous muggings and assaults. He praises the Apology Line as a “fantastic service” that has alleviated his guilt, allowing him to resume his life of crime. The call ends with a chilling announcement directed at “the person who is running this service”: “I will find out who you are. And, I’m telling you right now, I’m sorry, but I’m going to kill you.”

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The caller’s voice, with its jittery rhythms and outer-borough inflections, is an unmistakably New York sound. The Apology Line has a distinct regional and period flavor, transporting listeners back the New York of the 1980s and ’90s—a funkier, less gentrified city, where an artist like Allan Bridge could pursue his unremunerative passion project for years, scraping together cash from carpentry work to make rent on a run-down but capacious midtown loft. It was also a time before art, culture, and what passes for social life were vacuumed up by the internet. The podcast stirs nostalgia for a lost age of analog technology and paper media: the landlines and answering machines and cassette tapes essential to the operation of the Apology Line, the zines and alt-weekly newspaper columns and leaflets with tear-off tabs that Bridge used to promote the project and spread its gospel.

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But the Apology Line was not so much pre-internet as proto-internet. Callers turned to the line for catharsis, for therapy, to hash through moral dilemmas and to search for meaning. Many, possibly most, dialed in for kicks—it was a novel form of entertainment. Like today’s internet, the Apology Line offered its users anonymity, affording the freedom to be both brutally honest and wildly fraudulent; as on the internet, this anonymity fostered provocative and sometimes violent speech. Crucially, the service was interactive. Mr. Apology and the regular callers to the line engaged in ongoing dialogue, a conversation in the form of recorded messages that stretched across months and years.

In short, Apology Line callers formed a virtual community, not unlike those that proliferate today on social media networks and Reddit threads. That community is immortalized on the tapes that Allan left behind when he died in 1995, and the most striking moments of the podcast come when the producers let that tape roll. These recordings draw listeners’ attention to the mysteries of the medium itself, including existential ones. (Flyers advertising the Apology Line had a heady tagline: “When you call you will be alone with a tape recorder.”) The recordings also reveal that Allan Bridge was a podcaster avant la lettre, a harvester of human stories who assembled audio raw materials into absorbing theater.

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An ideal version of The Apology Line might simply rerun the vintage stuff, exactly as it was presented to phoners-in and art gallery visitors back in the day. Instead, Marissa Bridge and her co-producers Joseph Lamport, Melissa Dueñas, and Michael Moore (no, not that one) made an unfortunate decision: They created a Wondery podcast, or as close to a Wondery pod as their odd subject matter permits. The Apology Line tilts heavily toward the macabre. There is a lengthy section devoted to a caller who was the victim of domestic violence. We hear about several Apology Line regulars who profess to be murderers, including one who identifies himself as the Zodiac Killer.

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Then there’s a creep named Richie, who claims to be a serial killer of gay men. Beginning in Episode 3, the focus shifts to Allan’s attempts to verify Richie’s claims, and to hunt him down. It is here that the machinery of the podcast starts to grind and clank, and smoke billows from the vents. Clichés creep into Marissa’s narration: “Allan was keeping a lot of secrets from a lot of people. … It seemed to me that Allan’s impulsiveness had cost him his chance to catch the monster that had haunted our lives for so long.” A singular story is being wrenched into the shape of conventional one—a standard true crime narrative, littered with red herrings and goosed along by ominous synthesizer chords.

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I don’t think it’s a spoiler to divulge that the resolution of the Richie plot is unsatisfying. The attempt to turn Allan’s death into a noir thriller is another imposition, an exercise in willful Wondery-ism. “This life … is a beautiful dream,” Allan says in a recording played late in the final episode. “When this dream ends, it’s not like we wake up and we’re in another reality. It’s more akin to going into that deep state of sleep.” Allan Bridge was, in fact, a detective, of a sort: not a gumshoe on the trail of killers but a pensive investigator of the conundrums raised by his crazy art project, questions about guilt and virtue, repentance and absolution, fact and fantasy, life and death. That story is less sensational and more interesting—truer, you might say—than true crime.

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