It’s a strange feeling to seemingly be the only person talking about something you think is great — something you think really deserves more people listening, paying attention to it, and (hopefully) appreciating it — and not just because you feel like what you’re talking about appeals directly to you; even as it might finally do a depiction of someone like yourself (say, in my instance, a disabled person) justice, you know it can also have the ability to appeal to other people, whether they’re disabled or not — you just feel you might need to be better-able to put appreciative eyes and ears on it. You become something of a cheerleader — and you hope, to yourself, that people hear, take up the cheer, and pass along the word of that thing you love, as well.
The podcast Power Trip, from Realm, has been an eight-episode journey into the world of a disabled person dealing with an unexpected magical (literally) situation in a distinctly human way, depicted through that person’s point-of-view through a brilliant intermix of first-person internal narration and external dialogue with other people, directed and edited with finesse — and it doesn’t hurt that the star and focal point of season 1 is one of the greatest actors working today (and I know I’m not the only one who shares that opinion), Tatiana Maslany.
Having already done exceptional work continuing the BBC America/Space series she justly won multiple awards for, Orphan Black, in audio form (as Orphan Black: The Next Chapter), Realm and Maslany decided to continue that quality of work on an entirely new, original project for the platform. It’s a tribute to the clearly-strong relationship between performer and company that we’ve gotten such incredible content nearly every year from Maslany’s work with Realm — the first (audiobook) season of The Next Chapter in 2019 (when Realm was known as Serial Box), the second (podcast) season of The Next Chapter in 2021, and Power Trip this summer in 2022 — and all while Maslany has been simultaneously busy with multiple other projects; the Broadway run of Network and the HBO series Perry Mason in 2019, while doing season 1 of The Next Chapter; the very prominent Marvel Studios series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law in 2021 and 2022, while doing season 2 of The Next Chapter and season 1 of Power Trip — with the brunt of the pandemic in 2020 being the only downtime between them. It cannot have been easy for Realm and Maslany to try and make all of these work simultaneously, but I’m very glad (and, for The Next Chapter, I know members of Orphan Black‘s Clone Club are) that they were able to produce such incredible work, consistently.
It’s also telling of how much a gifted performer trusts the people in a company that she’s willing to do an entirely original IP for them — but that, too, isn’t the whole story; Maslany also executive-produced, so her story input was something Realm clearly wanted with this project. Having experienced the whole thing, I couldn’t help but have noticed those touches of herself Maslany brought to it — the strong platforming of LGBTQ+ issues and people, as she’s always done; the frisson and depth in interactions between characters that she’s said she’s always prized most highly in her work and in her storytelling; the abiding love of musicals (although not, in this instance, Jesus Christ Superstar, but Rodgers and Hammerstein, instead); but, above all, the fact that every character is human — no one is without flaws.
Maslany has publicly said the term “strong female character” is something of a limiting box to put an artist in, and she’s right — so the authors of Power Trip have put her words into truth: Maslany’s character Jane is not a “strong female character” — at the very least, not in any facile sense of the term; she is a human character, a disabled human character, a human character with flaws and foibles who’s a woman, and who has to deal, as a matter of course, with society as a woman. The “stop reinforcing the patriarchy” scene in Episode 1 is one of the best examples, early in the show, of this; it makes a point, a necessary point, but it also takes the point into a direction that neither Jane nor the listener expects it to go, and that makes it both funny and puts us in Jane’s shoes. She’s right, but she’s not perfect — and that’s why (hopefully) we vibe with her, even as she makes mistake after mistake after unforced mistake over the course of the series using her power; even if you’ve never been in the exact situations she’s been in (as I somewhat have — minus, of course, the magical kidney) , you can still relate to her, to her actions, and to her whole situation. (If you can’t, I have to respectfully wonder what your own life experience might be.)
Furthermore, as the plot progresses the interactions between people, between human characters, comes naturally and without contrivance — even with a group of people being featured with magical powers from organ transplants, you are never taken out of the story because the writers and performers always convince you that these are real people. Every action follows naturally as a matter of course from another action — it’s strange to say this about a series where the lead character can magically command other people to do what she wants them to do, but there is no unreality to the series. I do mean that; I think that’s a mark of great writing. The authors, Mary Hamilton and Cara Horner, are so skillful in their plotting, and create characters and situations we can so easily and quickly relate to, that after a while you don’t even think about the implausibility of the magical kidney, because everything else works logically and realistically around that, and the powers, too, work realistically in tandem with that. When people act like people, whether like people you know or people you might not know but the writers clearly do, I think you accept magical powers a bit easier. It operates in dramedy and dark comedy, but is never ungrounded; there are fun situations, maybe a little heightened (Coney Island and episode 7’s morning-after, for example), but events never take you out of the listening experience to make you say, “wait, this doesn’t make sense”, because it always does.
(Parenthetically, the treatment of Jane’s romantic life — those moments of intimacy, the awkwardness that comes after, the normality of discussing it all, even with the “Power Hour” group — is one of the most refreshing aspects of the show I don’t think I touched on prior to this point. There are, of course, “sex-farce” aspects, particularly in episode 7, but the way it’s played is just something I adore. I can’t think of the last time I saw a treatment of a disabled person with a romantic life like this, and depicted so normally — as just another facet of her; not, say, something out of the ordinary because she has a romantic life. There is no judgment for her being as able as a man to move on from romantic partners with the same speed, and it shows to just what sort of really wonderful, unexpectedly-great places women writers can take a story to, when given the chance. It upends the traditional patriarchal paradigm to a degree I really wish I was seeing more of, in things.)
I’ve mentioned in my earlier reviews for the season that the entire cast does bravura work, but to my own disappointment, I had not been able to, up until now, praise each actor who plays each character by name, because I hadn’t access to a cast list. Realm‘s very own Heather Mason has since provided me with a fuller cast list, and I am deeply grateful to her and to Realm to be able to list those performers for you, now:
- TATIANA MASLANY — Jane
- BRENDAN HINES — Bruce
- LISA LOEB — Jane’s mother
- COURTNEY LIN — Leah
- VARGUS MASON — Christian
- MIKE SMITH RIVERA — Mateo
- LARISSA GALLAGHER — Deirdre
- MIRIAM KATZ — Erica
- ELIZABETH LAIDLAW — Sloane
- ELLA JUNE CONROY — Charlotte (“Charlie”)
- DEXTER HOBERT — Thoreau (“Reau”) and Boy
As I’ve said, the entire cast does stellar work, so I don’t want to seem as though I’m neglecting some of the performers by bringing attention to a few specifically by name. That being said, there are several performances in this series anchoring it, several from actors I was not previously familiar with, to the point where I don’t know that the series would entirely work, emotionally, without their efforts. So I’d like to take some space to properly praise them, here.
Brendan Hines’s performance as Bruce makes you deeply feel for the character — even though Jane is at a disadvantage, being a bi disabled woman, Bruce is such a fundamentally decent guy, and Hines play him so gently and empathetically, that you genuinely start feeling uncomfortable the more Jane “commands” him to manipulate him — which I think is the writers’ point. If Bruce were a stock male chauvinist, or even just slightly more of a jerk (and I’m not saying he’s a jerk; I’m merely saying, if it were played and written that way), you would not get the feeling the writers want you to get. Jane is, yes, finally putting herself into an advantageous position in the world by using her power — by self-actualizing and giving herself a greater autonomy than the world has heretofore given her, because she is a woman and disabled in a predominantly patriarchal society built mainly with the non-disabled in mind — but she’s hurting this sweet, wonderful man who really doesn’t deserve it by doing so. Jane even says that Bruce is the sort of guy she’d think society would want her to date — and, in the end, admits to him that she saw him almost as a status symbol. Being a man in a patriarchal society, as Bruce is, confers unfair advantages, but Bruce never presses them; he seems naturally accommodating — he never looks to be putting on a show of “courtliness”; he genuinely is that guy. Which makes, even keeping in mind the patriarchal society they live in, Jane’s removal of his own autonomy in order to bolster her own hurt all the more — he never presses any advantage; he truly doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him, even as Jane seemingly is finally getting the leveling-up she arguably deserves in a society she’s fundamentally at a disadvantage in. Bruce’s fundamental decency, even though, yes, he is not perfect, only further points up to the listener Jane’s own fundamentally human flaws in doing what she’s doing. Without the writing being just so, and without Hines’s vocal excellence (I’m not sure if he’s done audio drama before this — I know he mainly works in film and television — but he certainly should continue to do more after this, because he’s that damned great at it), it wouldn’t come off. The writers trust the performer, and the performer trusts the writers, and when that mutual trust comes together in just the right way, you get brilliance.
Hines is Tatiana Maslany’s husband, and, although the relationship between Jane and Bruce starts uneasily and ends sadly in the show, I hope we get many more opportunities for them to shine together, whether in audio, television, or film — Maslany giving Hines this space to make a great performance, and Hines in turn giving Maslany her own space in the scenes between them to bring out further emotional complexities of her character, produces, in this instance, really beautifully-played audio scenes that are maybe some of the best and most-natural “two-hander” scenes I’ve been able to experience in any media this year. (I know they have a short film they’ve done together coming out, soon — I believe, specifically, it’s a horror-comedy — so I’m looking forward to when that releases, as well; I’m sure it’ll showcase even more of their variety, together.)
On the opposite side of the hetero coupling of Bruce and Jane, Courtney Lin as Leah, Jane’s “Power Hour” groupmate and, possibly, eventual partner, delivers a performance that anchors, beautifully, the eventual romance. When it comes to audio drama, the voice is the key thing to convey a character, and Lin’s voice perfectly fits how Jane (and we) perceive Leah — from stranger to friend to lover, all through varying vocal qualities. Lin as Leah is not a “BIG” performance — it’s Jane whose performance, at times, needs to (and does) go “BIG” — but that’s not the point of Leah as a character. Leah perceives Jane as who she is — no filters — as Jane finally realizes at story’s end. Jane has to slowly break down the walls of her own emotional enclosure, and Leah, even when Jane immediately after in reaction to something puts the walls back up, is realistic enough that she knows she needs to wait for Jane to find the right moment for herself, as finally comes in the hospital. Lin plays the beach scene during the Coney Island episode with such low-key naturalness that it points up just how spiky and self-effacing Jane, even as played naturally by Tatiana Maslany, is — Jane, at that point a bundle of neuroses, interacting with someone trying to welcome a possible new friend into their own emotional life, and, thereby, give that friend a little more emotional freedom. Jane reacts badly to hearing what Leah personally thinks of her, but Leah is right — absolutely right, despite that atypical bluntness — and Lin’s performance, of a generally normal, gentle person who just happens to have the power to make things grow, and knows what to do with it when the time comes, gives the eventual pairing of Jane and Leah an organic life and movement to the writing that makes the whole thing make perfect sense. It’s a little like the quality Evelyne Brochu gave to her own character’s eventual romantic pairing with Tatiana Maslany’s in Orphan Black.
I had not heard Courtney Lin in anything prior to this, but her performance in Power Trip made me sit up and take notice at how effortlessly natural and great it was — especially for the podcast audio drama format. It gave me the impression, although I have no way of knowing, that she probably has a long C.V. of really great work she’s done, because whoever cast her knew exactly what they were doing — and so did Lin. I’ll be really looking forward to seeing or hearing whatever work she does next.
Similarly, I had not heard Vargus Mason and Mike Smith Rivera in anything prior to this, nor had I Larissa Gallagher, but the pure distinctiveness and fun of their vocals just made me fall in love with their characters. Vargus Mason as Christian and Mike Smith Rivera as Mateo have probably the sweetest and most unproblematic love story in the whole show — you absolute delight in hearing them grow closer and closer, over common interests, particularly with Jane helping the slightly-shyer Christian work up the confidence to pursue his romance. I would adore a whole spin-off where Christian and Mateo deal with their lives and make delicious food and meet each others’ families and such — maybe I’m a sentimentalist, but it just warmed my heart when we kept learning more about their pairing, and half of the fun wouldn’t come off without Smith Rivera and Mason’s ebullient and wonderful performances. Mason, in particular, makes you invest so deeply, through his performance, in Christian’s well-being that you naturally feel even worse when he and Jane fight in episode 6 — and then, even though you know it’s coming, a sense of real and wonderful and spontaneous joy when he and Jane finally make up together in episode 8 and Christian is reduced to laughing while turning invisible as Jane hugs him because he’s gotten so emotional. If I’m ranking male performances for Power Trip, Hines and Mason absolutely bowled me over — Mason and Smith Rivera are clearly past masters of audio format acting.
Larissa Gallagher as Deirdre has, aside from Christian, perhaps the most distinctive voice in the whole “Power Hour” group — you immediately know when she’s talking. She’s the only British person in the group, but that’s only part of why she’s so distinctive — Deirdre’s power is to “bring the party”, and Gallagher’s performance absolutely delivers on that. Even when she’s not actually “bringing the party”, she’s still bringing the party, and she knows it. The vocal casting, the direction, and the performance all come together to just give you that character — she comes across so strongly that you kind of wish she had he own “bring the party” spin-off. Gallagher is an absolute blast, and I’d love to hear whatever other work she might have done in the past or what she might do in the future.
Lisa Loeb as Jane’s mother was not quite as prominent a character in the series as I had expected going into it — due to the story, she mainly appears in several phone calls in several different episodes, but they’re short scenes — but when the story finally gets to her big moment, the hospital scenes in episode 7, she brings the truth of the emotions so strongly that you understand why the story might have been holding back, because it’s a gut-punch. I know that Loeb and Maslany never recorded together at the same time, from the footage provided by Realm; nevertheless, there’s such immediate mother-daughter spikiness and chemistry between them that you can’t help but somehow innately believe, even as you know it’s not true, that they are in the same room, talking and arguing and, finally, coming back to terms with each other, in the hospital scenes — and that’s also down to the absolutely wonderful audio work by sound designers Tom Maggs and Rory O’Shea and sound editor Corey Barton, who must have had so many different quality recordings to put together and match to the point where you do not notice any differences; that’s really one of the marks of great sound editing and sound design, I think, when you can’t even tell. I know Lisa Loeb is primarily a musician, but I know she has also done acting, as well, and I know Tatiana Maslany was very excited to work with her, having been a fan of her talent from way back — and, in this show, you can certainly see (and hear!) why. I hope they get to work together again, at some point, whether on a second season of Power Trip, or on something else. — because there’s something special, here.
Realm‘s Power Trip is must-listen streaming.
This show has been absolutely amazing, but if you’re not subscribed to Realm Unlimited, you are missing out on half the fun — not only will you then be contributing directly to Realm‘s ability to continue to make more shows like Power Trip, not only do you then get access to an entirely commercial-free experience (which, if you hate commercials, you might love), and not only do you get access to an entire season you’re able to binge when only the first episode drops for free for non-subscribers… but you get access to exclusive bonus content from the people who’ve made the show. I really think it’s worth it — I’m a subscriber, myself — so I’ll just delve in to what exactly you get to hear with Power Trip on Ream Unlimited:
- Bonus Episode: Realm Commands You…, a compilation of Power Trip‘s production team, featuring, among others, producer Rhoda Belleza, audio engineer Corey Barton, Realm additional marketing lead Heather Mason, audio producer (and director of Power Trip) Kailynn West, producer Marco Palmieri, producer Nicole Otto, Realm production coordinator Angela Yee, and sound designer and mixer Rory O’Shea on what they would do with Jane’s powers to command and what, if any, other powers they would want. It’s really lovely to put voices to some of the names that clearly show their talent with every episode of Power Trip, and… well, I hesitate to spoil any of their answers, but unless you’ve got a heart of stone, they will put a smile on your face with how fun and inventive every person’s answer is in such a quick amount of time — it just snaps along, and shows just what sort of expertise Realm can display with even their bonus content.
- Bonus Episode: Writer Mary Hamilton on Writing Power Trip, an interview between producer Nicole Otto and writer Mary Hamilton on the process of writing Power Trip with Cara Horner, the series’s themes, social norms, how Tatiana Maslany’s involvement in the project influenced the show’s writing, how New York City acted as a larger metaphor for Jane’s own bodily difficulties, and trying to depict the reality of Jane’s disability and honor what that life is. (And, not surprisingly, just how much they love Christian as a character!)
Seriously, it’s worth it. If you love this show, as I have, and you want to see Realm continue making shows like this, it’s an essential.
I have no idea whether or not Power Trip is a one-and-done or will come back as a continuing series; I’ve sort of held out hope by labeling this season 1 — Realm has done the same thing on their website, but I don’t know if that actually indicates a season 2 will come, down the line, officially. Regardless, I think Realm ought to be proud of their work in making this series — this sort of disability representation, backed by the regularly-astoundingly-great writing quality that Realm seems to have in spades regardless of series, is something really important for people like myself. This is the sort of representation I think helps people be seen as people — regardless of whether you are LGBTQ+, POC, First Nations, or disabled like myself, this is the level of quality in writing about us we’ve been needing our whole lives. Mary Hamilton and Cara Horner make it seem like the easiest thing in the world to do, but, clearly, it’s not — and I have to thank them so much for actually taking the care in doing this. I have to thank Kailynn West for just how sensitive her direction was on these issues this whole series; I have to thank Tatiana Maslany for using her own platform and position with Realm to actually show a disabled person as a human being — to show those struggles somebody like myself has to deal with every day, and how it’d make aspects of life so much easier if (in fiction, through magic; in real life, through actual social change) we could could for once break free of the structural disadvantages of being disabled in a society not remotely built for us — it’s a hard lesson, but I hope this show has opened people’s eyes about it by depicting it in this form, even a little bit. And I have to thank Realm for taking a chance, even with a star that they’ve worked with before involved, on a show written by women, directed by a woman, about a disabled woman who has a magic kidney she can command people with. It’s the best show I’ve heard all year — and I hope that people who’ve listened to it, just as I have, feel the same way.
It’s been a lovely Trip. Whether it continues, or not, I’ve adored it, all the same. It absolutely made my summer to be able to experience this story, and to write about it. In my own, little way, I hope I’ve gotten the word out on this great series — and on just how great Realm continues to be at what they do.
Power Trip is available on Realm.fm, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Listen away.