Smile Politely

Presenting your Criminal podcast cheat sheet

PYGMALION officially starts tomorrow, and this year will see the addition of podcasts: Criminal and Last Podcast on the Left. As a long time Criminal fan, I was more than delighted to learn I’d be able to attend a live show. I’ve been telling people to listen to this pod for years. Criminal is broadly, and almost vaguely about crime: people committing crimes, people prosecuting crimes, people defending criminals, the systems around crime, victims of crime, the extended circles of people affected by crime. I don’t consider myself a true crime fan or junkie. I like Criminal because it isn’t a gratuitous means to exploit someone’s horror and trauma. It’s a podcast that thoughtfully tells stories: Some stories are true crime style, a few are gruesome, some are sweet and even funny.

The brilliance of Criminal is in the storytelling, and this is entirely because of the show creators, Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer. Judge is the host of the show, the voice and guide taking you through the story, introducing you to the cast of real life characters. She is charming and funny; it is clear from the responses she elicits that she is a keen interviewer. The people featured on each episode are earnest, and there is always some sort of truth they reveal — truths that are clear and true to them, the interviewees. There is no judgment from Judge (pardon the pun), though I am most delighted when she is clearly surprised or made to laugh by the people she’s interviewing.

More than Judge’s skills as a storyteller and interviewer, it’s the production that makes Criminal so compelling. The show literally sounds good. Music is used purposefully. Judge’s words are used as transitions between themes; you’ll rarely ever hear an extended exchange between Judge and the person she’s interviewing. It’s clear that the entire team has a deft touch when it comes to their craft. The story is always central, it’s always compelling, and at the end of 30 short minutes I’m left completely satisfied and desperate for more.

All of this is to say, if you haven’t yet listened to this podcast, you’re missing out. The best compliment I can pay the podcast is this: Even if I think a topic won’t interest me, I listen, and I’m never disappointed. There’s something for everyone.

For this guide, I’ve enlisted the help of Julie McClure, my co-Managing Editor and Culture Editor. We each presented our favorite episodes, and we only overlapped on a couple. This is not particularly surprising — the podcast is so dynamic, there really is something to speak to any person’s interests.

We compiled her top five and my top five, as well as an agreed upon longer list for those wanting more. We hope you enjoy as much as we do. And we hope to see you at the live show this Thursday, September 27th at 6:30 p.m. Get your tickets here

— Jessica Hammie, Managing Editor, Food & Drink Editor


Episode 45: Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly accused. His book, Just Mercy is soul-changing, and this episode offers a taste of its contents and Stevenson’s work. 

Episode 70: The Procedure

This episode focuses on religious officials who worked clandestinely to help women acquire abortions prior to the 1970s. It’s an unexpected look at the relationship between clergy and women’s reproductive choices that is quite unlike what we see today. 

Episodes 91 + 92: The “It” Girl/Dementia Americana

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is complicated and tragic. This two-part story is riveting and maddening and makes you wonder what exactly has changed in society in the last century (spoilers, men are still trash).

Episode 93: Lavender Scare

During the Cold War, the US government made concerted efforts to rid itself of queer people. People believed to be gay or lesbian were intimidated and pushed out of the military and government agencies; they were blacklisted and, in many cases, had their lives destroyed.

This episode is an interview with Helen James (now 91), a woman who enlisted in the military in the 1950s, the next in a long line of (male) family members who served. It’s heartfelt and moving. Grab the tissues.

Episode 17: Final Exit

Judge interviews a woman who works as an “exit guide,” someone who sits with people who have decided to “end their lives on their own terms.” She sits with these individuals so they don’t have to die alone. It’s touching and looks objectively at an emotionally-tinged subject. 


Episode 66: Bully

This episode is the story of a real jackass abuser who literally bullies an entire town in Missouri for decades. Decades! This was just in the 1970s and 80s! The town decides that they’re sick of this dude. This story is shocking and absolutely worth listening to.

Episode 71: Bump in the Night

Ever hear some weird noises in your house? Ever think things in your house went missing or were moved? So did the woman featured in this episode.

This is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever heard.

Episode 98: The Doctors

Dr. Amy Goldberg, Dr. David Spain, and Dr. Ronald Stewart are trauma surgeons. They have treated numerous people who have been shot, giving them unique perspectives on this country’s problem with guns.

Episode 18: 695BGK

What happens when a cop pulls over the wrong car and ends up shooting a young black man? What happens when the young man survives?

Episode 35: Pen & Paper

This interview with a Chicago courtroom sketch artist is delightful.


Episode 33: Deep Dive

The Dive Supervisor for the Los Angeles Police Department is asked to retrieve evidence in a high profile murder investigation from the La Brea tar pits. The pit is described in the episode as “toxic, cold molasses.” 

Episode 62: Wildin

It’s actually somewhat rare to hear a Criminal episode that draws from current events. This one does. It’s the story of a young man seeking asylum who faces deportation after establishing his life in the US. 

Episode 64: 420

Who really came up with 420 as a code to signify smoking weed? Turns out, it was some stoners.

Episode 68: All the Time in the World

This episode is incredibly fascinating, and a little gross. Judge heads to a body farm at Texas State University to talk to Forensic Anthropologists who study the decomposition of the human body.

Episode 94: The Chase

This is an episode about streaking. It’s charming and laugh-out-loud funny.

Episode 95: The Job

Could you handle being the one to give the directive to administer lethal injection? How about writing the actual manual on how to do it correctly? A former prison superintendent tells his story. 

Episodes 88 + 89: Cold Case/Shadowing Sheila

Two-part episodes often signal a compelling story. In these, a woman sets out to solve her roommate’s murder case, which propels her into a new career. 

Criminal Podcast
Pygmalion Festival
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Colwell Theater
Thursday, September 27th, 6:30 p.m.
Purchase tickets here

Podcast descriptions written by Julie McClure and Jessica Hammie

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