by Brendan Foley
It’s been a good summer. We got two solid Marvel movies, we got Mad goddamn Max, we got a Pixar movie that everyone is just about the moon over, we got Tom Cruise doing just about everything just shy of actually vaulting over the moon for Mission: Impossible, and to top it all off we got Straight Outta Compton rallying huge swaths of a generation to the tune of record breaking box office. And on the television end of things, America got to spend eight weeks screaming at each other over True Detective and Wayward Pines, while fringe shows like Hannibal, Rick & Morty, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell pushed deeper and deeper into their weirdest inclinations.
And that’s just a smattering of what’s been available to the viewing public during these damned dog days. When you add in all the studios and networks and streaming sites all dumping (usually expensive) content at you week after week, it turns into a deluge that can be nigh on impossible to negotiate.
For all the amazing art on display to enjoy this summer, perhaps the most rewarding narrative experience hasn’t come from any visual medium. No, that honor goes to the most recent season of the You Must Remember This podcast. Writer and narrator Karina Longworth took a deep dive into the Manson murder story, and the 12-part series was at once hilarious, moving, tragic and even outright terrifying at times.
For you that don’t know, You Must Remember This is a podcast on the Infinite Guest network through which Longworth takes deep dives into “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Episode topics range from sprawling romances (such as the failed marriage between Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth) to professional feuds (such as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) to life-defining scandals like the Errol Flynn rape case. Longworth’s ability to distill complex history into digestible, riveting narrative is first-class, and her clearly intensive research often results in a wealth of bizarre details and facts.
Longworth has done several series in the past (including a deep dive into the various romances of Howard Hughes, or a long-running series called ‘Star Wars’ that explored what various celebrities did during wartime [the John Wayne episode is an all-timer]), but this Manson season represents the show’s longest sustained narrative, with 12 episodes (with varying running times that occasionally ran up to just under an hour) devoted to the tale.
By Longworth’s own admission, this ain’t exactly fresh earth she’s tilling. Hell, this same summer has seen NBC air Aquarius, a period drama about David Duchovny trying to catch pre-murders Charles Manson. (No word on whether he will succeed or not.) There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of iterations of this story and its aftermath, and that’s not counting the definite-hundreds of movies, shows, and books that have been directly inspired by what Chuck and his cronies got up to. Rob Zombie alone should have left us as a nation filled up on Charles Manson for years to come.
But because of Longworth’s chosen medium, she has an advantage that many do not. Whereas a movie or TV show is confined by budget, by runtime, and by the constraints of a visual medium, Longworth is free to explore the entire social and cultural infrastructure that created and fostered Manson, and then reaped the bloody whirlwind that he unleashed when his dreams came up empty. Longworth presents not only an exacting play-by-play of the Manson family’s evolution, but she skips around in time to follow sidestreams centered on people bound to Manson by chance and fate (like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson [pictured below] who briefly tried to help Manson get a record contract).
The overall effect is an incredibly comprehensive examination of a specific time and place, a thorough encapsulation of a specifically-American form of madness.
To be perfectly honest with all of y’all, as much as I had enjoyed You Must Remember This’s various episodes, I found myself reluctant to start in on this Manson series. Serial killers are about the most played out trope in modern horror, second only to maybe vampires. And at least vampires are fantastical monster-beings. Far, far too many serial killer narratives (including many directly inspired by Manson) fetishize the suffering and misery to an uncomfortable (and often outright-misogynistic) effect.
But Karina Longworth had a secret weapon up her sleeve: Karina Longworth. As narrator, Longworth proved to be the perfect guide for this voyage through Hollywood hell. She speaks clearly and cleanly, knowing exactly where to place her emphasis to get the reaction she desires. She’s objective, but allows her own personality and viewpoint to be pronounced. Longworth has long been an excellent writer, structuring her narratives in such a way that even when recounting very well-known pieces of history, her words can hit you like a sledge hammer to the heart (the story of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard will break you). As Sharon Tate moves on the rails leading to her death, as Dennis Wilson is shattered and left a useless husk, as an entire generation’s innocence is marched to a guillotine with “Piggy” written on it in blood, Longworth speaks with empathy and compassion, compassion that stings all the more because we all know that there’s no saving these doomed souls.
As our guide, Longworth avoids many of the traps that beset fellow tellers of this particular tale. She clearly takes no pleasure in the grisly elements of the case (she opens the murder-detailing episode with an admission that she has been dreading doing this particular episode). While others seem drawn to the story because of the specifics of violence and kink, Longworth is after richer game, preferring to explore how Manson and his apostles’ descent emerged from, reflected, and in some cases predicted the changing face of America and its culture.
Many, many people have taken a crack at telling the story of Charles Manson and his droogs, but Longworth is one of the few who seems interested and/or successful at articulating why it mattered.
Spellbinding and heart-wrenching, the recently concluded Manson series is a highpoint for a show that has had nary a misstep. Longworth has been steadily crafting a sort of magnum opus of Hollywood, documenting the siren song of celebrity and fame, and the inevitable crash upon the rocks. It’s a city of angels people entirely with the damned, and if you don’t believe me, listen to the show and try to count how many stories have a happy ending.
You can listen to You Must Remember This at www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com.