When I read the descriptions of each act in This American Life #508: Superpowers, the one that immediately caught my attention was “Act II: Wonder Woman.” According to the synopsis, it’ about a woman named Zora who dreamt of being a superhero as a child, and actually set out to accomplish a set of goals that would make her as close to a real-life superhero as possible. This story sounded too cool to ignore, so I may have skipped ahead in the podcast to listen to act two.
In many ways, Zora’s story tells itself. How can it not? Kelly McEvers, the narrator, is mesmerized by Zora and it doesn’t seem difficult for her to mesmerize the audience in the same way. Zora is such an interesting character, embodying every “cool” archetype from mystical new-age dreamer to hardened, crime-fighting badass. But the way McEvers tells the story, beginning with Zora’s most obvious attributes and working her way both chronologically through Zora’s life and delving into her more complex characteristics, makes Zora seem more realistic.
As always is the case in This American Life, the podcast as a whole is neatly organized into a prologue and several acts, with host Ira Glass announcing the change of subject at the beginning of each section. McEvers begins Act II by describing her very first meeting with Zora and subsequent trip to Vegas, giving a physical description of the woman and then a rundown of their conversation – Zora’s voice, mannerisms, occupation, and a general overview of her character. McEvers herself has a pleasing, feminine voice, which contrasts Zora’s deep, smoky tones and makes Zora sound even more mysterious by comparison.
The first time we hear Zora’s interview, she is talking about her recurring dreams since childhood of being a conventional superhero. This moment takes us back to Zora’s beginning, and also gives her a voice of her own which we can identify with her character. At this point we begin hearing about the list of required skills Zora focused on acquiring. We hear the sound of Zora flipping through her notebook; the scarcity of sound effects in the podcast means that this moment highlights the importance of what follows. Zora talks about the list and begins reading items from it, and continues in the background while McEvers narrates, creating a sense of depth to the sound which mimics the depth of Zora’s character. Since this list is a major influence on who she is, McEvers spends quite a bit of time talking about it and interviewing Zora about it before moving on to talking about her academic accomplishments. I like how McEvers discusses this part, instead of using an interview with Zora, because it pulls the audience back for a moment, out of Zora’s dreams and personal life, to basically list her resume, which is more impersonal.
The broader, more realistic view of Zora begins to show when McEvers introduces Zora’s process of interviewing with the CIA. The tense music adds to the drama of the situation, and its abrupt end when McEvers says she was rejected underscores the seriousness of the situation. Although her goal of becoming a CIA agent fits with her established, decidedly adventurous personality, the fact that she was not accepted highlights that she is not actually this larger-than-life superhuman she’s made out to be. Hearing Zora’s voice describing her despondency upon being rejected from the CIA is much more intimate than McEvers’ impersonal narration of the application process. The effect of this is to make Zora seem flawed, less “superpowered” and therefore more realistic in the mind of the listener.
This view is even more balanced when Zora tells about her private investigation case in Mexico. Her voice narrating, talking about the case, makes it seem very exciting and adventurous, but McEvers’ narration talks about Zora’s insecurity leading up to the trip. This is quite the opposite of what we’ve been hearing so far, with Zora talking about her more personal moments and McEvers detailing her accomplishments. The effect is a nice balance between Zora’s two emerging sides: the cliff-hanging adventure-lover and the regular woman underneath.
The act concludes with Zora and McEvers discussing her “new list,” again fleshing out details of her everyday life which make her seem more realistic and relatable to the listener. The music during this is lighthearted, easygoing, matching the tone of their conversation.
When I began listening, I thought that this woman can’t possibly be real, she’s way too awesome to be anything but a made-up character in a novel. But the sequence and sound manipulation in McEver’s storytelling made Zora really come alive and seem human, which speaks to the overall theme of the podcast: the concept of superheroes, and how people in real life interact with it.