Great podcasts always transport us, but there’s something unique about the limited series that inspires an even more ravenous audio binge.
Podcasts are already an ideal storytelling medium, bringing us back to humanity’s most ancient form of entertainment through oral traditions. But the constraints of a limited series only enhance those fundamental qualities that can make podcasts such transportive and binge-worthy experiences.
With definitive beginning, middle, and ends, we define the limited-series podcast as a contained story told over five or more episodes. Some of the ones on our list might have other seasons, but those tackle different subject matters.
Evidently, true-crime and documentary dominate the limited-series podcasting category (and the medium as a whole, really). But we’ve gone out of our way to include entries from other genres, like history, culture, and comedy.
Whether you’re looking to binge while deep cleaning, gaming, taking a bath, commuting, or hunkering down for a long flight or road trip, we guarantee these recommendations will do wonders to pass the time.
What it is or who it’s for: A jaw-dropping and uniquely personal investigation into one of the most infamous murders in American history.
What it’s about: Despite being a connoisseur of grisly true-crime, I’ve never encountered anything like Root of Evil before. It left this murder aficionado both audibly gasping and uncontrollably weeping. Root of Evil is as much a first-hand account of devastating generational family trauma as it is a riveting investigation into the infamous Black Dahlia murder that rocked Los Angeles in 1947. Sisters Rasha Pecoraro and Yvette Gentile take us along on their journey to unravel the web of fatal lies and horrifying abuses that has haunted their family for decades. At the center of it all is George Hodel, with questions of not only his own evil but what being born into evil means for the innocent people raised by it. Don’t worry if you find the first couple episodes hard to follow, because it’s all part of experiencing this disorienting family saga.
Length: Eight 35-60 minute episodes.
What it is or who it’s for: Some much-needed historical context for our current moment that anyone can get sucked into, regardless of their interest in politics.
What it’s about: You’d think we would have exhausted Watergate by now as the scandal so infamous it became a synonym for political conspiracy and fuckery. But Slow Burn succeeds in finding riveting new territory by telling the story from the vivid points of view of those who were at its center. Aside from being essential listening for understanding how we got to where we are today, Slow Burn delivers all the deliciously shocking details of a celebrity tell-all — only with much better reporting courtesy of Leon Neyfakh.
Length: Eight 30-45 minute episodes (though there are two other seasons diving into other notorious stories).
What it is or who it’s for: Those who want to escape to a different planet without getting too far away from home.
What it’s about: At its essence, The Habitat is like if NASA did a season of Big Brother. Six contestants (aka volunteers) elect to participate in an experiment where they play the part of a crew of astronauts living on Mars. For a full year, these six strangers share very close quarters while simulating a space mission that’s actually stationed on a remote mountain in Hawaii. Host Lynn Levy takes us through their experiences using the audio diaries each had to log daily. It’s a mix of existential contemplations and some good-old-fashioned reality TV human drama.
Length: Seven 30-minute episodes (with one bonus episode).
What it is or who it’s for: Every American.
What it’s about: As all-encompassing as it is powerfully specific and personal, 1619 is the story of modern America — and the people who built it through blood, sweat, tears, and hope. It’s a version of the story a great many of us never hear, purposefully kept hidden in the margins of U.S. history books. But 1619 isn’t just a podcast about the history of slavery as the genesis of almost every aspect of American society and culture today. This isn’t just a sobering lesson, or hard pill you have to swallow. By weaving the historical with the personal and the poetic, Nikole Hannah-Jones (alongside other guest hosts) paints a viscerally captivating portrait of black Americans’ lived experience, and all the simultaneous struggle, strength, oppression, ambition, pain, and humor needed to survive. 1619 is a story about race and the inequalities embedded into a system predicated on its conceit. But above all it’s a story about us, the people we were then and still are now.
Length: Six 35-45 minute episodes.
What it is or who it’s for: Lovers of the strange stylings of sketch comedy like The Tim & Eric Show and I Think You Should Leave.
What it’s about: This is Branchburg is an experiment into sketch comedy podcasting from Brendan O’Hare and Cory Snearowski, co-produced by Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric fame). Each 15-20 minute episode offers various windows into the lives of fictional citizens from a small New Jersey town — like an existential milkman contemplating being the last of his kind and pining for the good old days when people used to respect the government recommended eight glasses of milk a day. In the same way podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang paved a path for improv in comedy podcasting, This is Branchburg feels like it could do the same for scripted sketch shows. For now, though, it seems like no second season is in the works, as the creators seek to tackle bigger projects instead.
Length: Ten 15-20 minute episodes.
What it is or who it’s for: The deep dive and inside scoop on that bizarre Hollywood sex cult you vaguely heard about.
What it’s about: You probably remember when news first broke back in 2018 of Smallville actor Allison Mack being arrested on charges of human trafficking related to what many described as a sex cult. The details that trickled out — like how she allegedly tried to recruit everyone from fellow co-star Kristin Kreuk to Emma Watson — made the story sound more and more unbelievable. But that only scratches the surface of the truth behind NXIVM, which leader Keith Raniere sold as a “female empowerment” multi-level marketing company. Former members describe it instead as a secret society that forced women into sexual slavery. With the help of one such former member, Sarah Edmondson, this CBC investigative series paints one of the most comprehensive and heartbreaking portraits of NXIVM available.
Length: Seven 35-60 minute episodes (though there are several seasons detailing other CBC investigations).
What it is or who it’s for: A delightfully alternative way of seeing the world’s (seemingly) unanswerable questions.
What it’s about: The antithesis of your typical unsolved mystery or conspiracy podcast, The Mystery Show turns mundane cases of the unexplained into riveting, hilarious, and deeply human radio. This American Life veteran Starlee Kine is a fearless mystery-solver unlike any other, with evidently endless amounts of curiosity and dedication to figuring out the most innocuous unexplained phenomenons that keep her up at night.
Length: Six 25-60 minute episodes. (Note: Gimlet canceled the podcast before Season 2 was finished and it remains unclear if it will live again through a different network.)
What it is or who it’s for: An unimaginable, fatal tragedy peeled back like layers of an onion to reveal the larger social ills at play.
What it’s about: In 2018, a car carrying the six adopted black children of a white lesbian couple was found crashed at the bottom of a cliff on California Highway 1. None of the Hart family survived. By unraveling the events and people that lead to what was later deemed a murder-suicide, Broken Harts digs into an array of complicated and important social issues we face today. It depicts the very real human cost of too often abstracted problems, like identity politics, virtue signaling, America’s broken foster care system, underreported domestic abuse in LGBTQ relationships, and even the pretty lies we tell on social media to cover it all up.
Length: Nine 30-45 minute episodes.
What it is and who it’s for: For those who think they know everything about the Manson murders, but are missing the fascinating Hollywood history at its center.
What it’s about: We’ve seen so many different iterations of the infamous 1969 Manson murders, from the countless movie and TV adaptations to a litany of true crime documentaries and books. But with all due respect to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, it’s this 12-part podcast series that offers one of the most refreshingly unique and revealing takes on Charles Manson. Host Karina Longworth uses her unmatched storytelling and journalistic skills to tell the story of the Manson Family through the perspective of Hollywood history. Cutting through all the monster mythologizing and aggrandizing bullshit, Longworth gets to the truth of Manson as a fame-hungry grifter with middling musical talents. What’s more damning, she dives into the California music scene whose stars — like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson — were foolish enough to invite him in. More than just a portrait of the man, You Must Remember This gets at the unique cultural circumstances behind the tragedy and its long-lasting impact on the glitz and glamour of seemingly untouchable stardom.
Length: Twelve 35-60 minute episodes, though we also highly recommend you check out the podcast’s many other fantastic limited-series, like Dead Blondes and Make Me Over.
What it is or who it’s for: The unusual true-crime case of a murderer enabled by the broken health care system meant to protect the very people he tortured and killed.
What it’s about: When it comes to serial killers, we’ve grown accustomed to straightforward tales of boogeymen who hunt their victims through methods that feel totally removed from everyday life and society. But Dr. Death, aka the Dallas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch who maimed or killed 33 patients, upends that false sense of security. The true horror revealed by reporter Laura Beil is that monsters don’t just live among us. Monsters can be aided, abetted, and vetted by a health care system that lets people die to avoid extra paperwork. The line between life-saving surgery and Texas Medical Board-sanctioned murder is thinner than any of us should feel comfortable with.
Length: Six 35-45 minute episodes (with four updates).
A Very Fatal Murder
What it is or who it’s for: A must-listen true-crime parody podcast from Onion Public Radio, perfect for crime and comedy aficionados alike.
What it’s about: Jumping on the true-crime podcast success bandwagon (some of which we’ve covered here), A Very Fatal Murder is a pitch-perfect satire of the phenomenon. This Onion podcast goes after everyone — from self-aggrandizing cold-case solvers like Up and Vanished‘s Payne Lindsey, to the sometimes overwrought Bigger Picture Cultural Analysis popularized by Serial and S-Town, and above all the deeply uncomfortable question of victim exploitation embedded in our obsession with true crime. Like an audio version of Netflix’s similarly brilliant American Vandal, A Very Fatal Murder is a hilarious yet necessarily harsh look in the mirror.
Length: Seven 10-15-minute episodes. There is a Season 2 fakeout of sorts, but it’s basically just a parody on the phenomenon of second season’s born out of nothing but the first story’s success.
Honorable mentions (or obvious givens)
UPDATE: April 13, 2020, 10:23 a.m. PDT The host of Slow Burn: Watergate was incorrectly identified as Joel Anderson, the host of the podcast’s second season.
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