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Limetown’s jump to TV should surprise the podcast’s fans

Jessica Biel leads a mystery that takes risks

lia haddock sits at her podcasting microphone discussing Limetown Hannah Macdonald/Facebook Watch

Based on the 2015 podcast of the same name, Facebook Watch’s new show, Limetown, is an ambitious, inconsistent sci-fi mystery that tries to evaluate the balance between obsession and humanity. Protagonist Lia Haddock (Jessica Biel), a broadcast journalist, uses her platform to try to solve the mystery of what happened in Limetown — a city inhabited by scientists all working on one secret project, funded by a mysterious benefactor and lead by a charismatic eccentric — ten years ago, when everyone there went missing without a trace.

Limetown follows along with the events of the podcast while also serving as a prequel. Moments from within Limetown (the town) are shown in flashbacks, sometimes taking up the bulk of the episode, while the present-day, interview monologues float overtop. As a fan of the podcast, I was eager to see how the audio drama would translate to TV. I got a peek at the first four episodes and found myself occasionally baffled, but gripped enough to want more.

Like the process of adapting a novel to screen after millions of readers have conjured their own images, applying visuals to Limetown’s audio story has mixed results. With so many ambitious choices made in the show, the now common “prestige TV” color scheme and other cinematography flourishes feel like safer options. Limetown, a setting reminiscent of Epcot or Celebration, Florida, may have been more nightmarish if contrasted as a candy-colored utopian against the show’s general grayscale. Still, the muted palette ultimately serves its purpose.

It’s easy to lose oneself in the mystery of Limetown, even as someone who’s listened to the podcast countless times. The creators are practiced in exposition, making it an easy watch for those who will first experience the story through the show; the setup is given in small doses, answering just enough questions to leave the viewer satiated but still curious. As Lia uncovers more secrets, the narrative reels the viewer into the reporter’s obsession with Limetown, itself built on an obsession with the limits of science. Lia’s drive, which borders on inhuman, is strengthened by a personal connection: her uncle, played by Stanley Tucci, was a resident of Limetown.

lia haddock interviews some guy with her npr microphone Hannah Macdonald/Facebook Watch

While the podcast used Lia as a way for the audience to organically learn the story from a variety of perspectives, the show makes her a bona fide protagonist, and the ways the writers develop her further are ... bold. As a kind of hero, Lia is an obsessive journalist, sometimes to the point of cartoonishness. But is she good at her job? By the end of episode three, I was baffled as to how she ever produced a piece that wasn’t about Limetown in her journalistic career. Lia doesn’t possess much personhood outside of the story she’s seeking, so when she eventually delivers a monologue about her family, it falls flat. We’re just not given enough of Lia as an actual person to buy her moments of emotional authenticity.

The same is true for a character used specifically for Limetown’s third episode. When Lia and her co-producer, Mark Green (Omar Elba), travel to a rural town to track a lead, they interview a local accused of a crime still fresh on its community’s mind, as the trial never landed on a conviction. The interview takes up almost the entirety of the episode, and while the monologue does reveal aspects of Lia, the time would have been better spent developing her in a more nuanced and direct way.

Limetown (the podcast) excelled by using interview structure to advance the story’s plot. The characters Lia interviews are captivating. While their stories are rooted in intrigue, they’re also recognizable, and full of human tics. The show brings those characterizations to life. John Beasley’s performance as a priest in the fourth episode is tragic and tender, adding a much-needed warmth to an otherwise detached introduction to a season. In this relentless TV landscape, asking people to watch four episodes before deciding whether or not to invest is a tough request, but Beasley’s performance is well worth the patience.

Limetown requires patience. In its first three episodes, the elevated reality and sense of realism dramatically shift from scene to scene. What keeps the show refreshing is its dedication to make the weird choices. Does it work when Lia Haddock slaps her face for no real reason beyond Biel creating physical dimension for her performance? Not quite. Does it work when a character adopts a pig a stand-in for a baby, even though that pig is almost definitely destined to be food? Oddly, painfully, welcomely so.

Limetown isn’t likely to land with viewers who prefer creative caution, but for viewers ready for a slow burn, the high highs in the first few episodes are worth the buckwild lows.

The first two episodes of Limetown are now available to stream on Facebook Watch. Two new episodes air each Wednesday.

Wil Williams writes, listens, and loves podcasts. She runs the website Wil Williams Writes, co-hosts the podcast Tuned In Dialed up, and has work featured in Discover Pods and Bello Collective. She is afraid of whales and suspicious of dolphins.

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