Missing Richard Simmons Is A Podcast For 2017

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Thank god it’s over.

That was my first reaction when I listened to the final episode of Missing Richard Simmons. Part of the reason I felt that way is the current media landscape of endless sequels, prequels, new seasons and remakes. I felt glad that a story could be told over the course of 6 relatively brief episodes and simply end.

But that isn’t the real reason why I’m glad the whole thing is over. No, I’m glad it’s over because it was growing more and more difficult to listen to the show. From the beginning, Dan Taberski’s effort to dive into the mystery of Richard Simmons’ sudden retreat from the media spotlight teetered on a thin line between sincere adoration and prying selfishness. And it doesn’t end up landing in a place where I can feel okay with a lot of it, even if I admit that it entertained me.

The show positions itself as a mystery to be solved, much like Serial, but ultimately that was a ruse. The mystery itself — what happened to Richard Simmons? — is answered essentially right off the bat. Taberski could have accepted Richard’s most recent interviews as evidence that things are fine. Or he could have called Richard’s manager, gotten the answer that Richard was fine and decided not to make a media production of it.

Instead, Taberski forges ahead, veering back only when it becomes clear to him that he has gone way too far. Or at least that’s what he wants the audience to think. I mean, really, did it take him 6 episodes to think twice about all this? Wouldn’t badgering Richard’s brother without warning, showing up at the doorstep with recorder in hand have been enough to force some cognitive dissonance? In a conversation with Richard’s manager, Taberski asks for 5 minutes with the former workout guru despite the clear tone of the conversation and previous calls that ended very abruptly. Shouldn’t he have read the situation and pulled back? And what about following the masseuse’s story about Richard being held captive with virtually no details or rebuttals from the maid’s perspective? The journalistic burden to present both sides clearly wasn’t met.

But all these questionable actions are indicative of the podcasting landscape itself. Many of the podcasting companies pursuing narrative audio storytelling were born out of NPR’s nonpartisan creedo, but they are divorced from the ethical guidelines that have traditionally kept audio storytelling firmly within journalistic bounds. Even Serial, which came out of WBEZ, struggled to stay out of ethical quagmires as Sarah Koenig found herself addressing her own biases towards believing (or wanting to believe) Adnan’s side of Hae’s murder. MRS is decidedly un-journalistic, despite the fact that it tries to present an inherently investigative “mystery.”

And this gets to one of the biggest questions I think listeners will ask about this show: was there a point to Missing Richard Simmons? We essentially had the answer to the central question of the show in the first episode. Richard simply retreated from public life. He’s in his late 60s, spent most of his life giving a great deal to others and now he’s taking time for himself. But did we need 3 hours of storytelling to get to that point? Probably not, but the journey itself was compelling because of the need to explain.

And that need to explain, that need to take from Richard what we need to feel good about his story, becomes the central focus of MRS by the end of the last episode. Dan Taberski needed the podcast, we wanted the podcast and Richard certainly didn’t want anything to do with it. But by the end, Richard is subjected to checks by the LAPD because of the podcast’s influence and our need to find an acceptable “answer” to the mystery.

But what about the ending itself? Was it worth it? For us, the audience, it may or may not have been. We got a near-perverse view into a public figure who has purposefully retreated from public life and gained entertainment for 6 weeks. Did it hurt Richard in the process? Probably. Should we feel culpable in all this? I think so.

Did Taberski at least gain closure? It doesn’t seem like it, but then again, there really isn’t any to be had here. Maybe that was the greatest trick of this show. There was no ending to be had. Richard is still alive, but just isn’t giving his fans the ostentatious, exuberant send-off that they wanted.

Taberski’s reaction to all this — disbelief that Richard would just disappear, disbelief that there wasn’t an ending that would end with what he wanted — is why journalistic separation and the need to minimize harm is still important. Without a degree of separation, journalists cannot cover their subjects in a fair and ethical way.

Again though, this isn’t journalism with a capital-J. It never was. Missing Richard Simmons is one man trying to reach another through means that are dubious at best. Any attempt to explain that away or make it feel better is disingenuous at best. This is 2017 in a nutshell: we’re deep in the subjective. The traditional bastions of objectivity (journalism, science, establishment government) are all fractured and wounded. Why wouldn’t podcasting move away from these things as well?

More than anything, I was struck by the gut punch of the final two episodes: none of us, Taberski included, really know Richard Simmons. We like to think that we do because he was such a high-profile figure in Americana for so long, and Taberski likes to think so because he went to Richard’s gym. By those standards, millions of Americans have an intimate knowledge of the Kardashians, Brad and Angelina and Donald Trump.

And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson with MRS: You don’t know these people. You never did. You never will.