36 Questions is the most recent venture by Two-Up Productions, the team behind the acclaimed audio drama Limetown. The show is an audio drama podcast musical about an estranged husband and wife trying to reconnect over the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” a sort of social experiment to see how quickly two people can become close. 36 Questions ended this week with its third of three acts, wrapping the show into about three hours.
Please note that this review will contain spoilers. I would recommend listening to 36 Questions with as little knowledge of its plot going in as possible, so please be advised before reading. If you’d like to read a review without spoilers, you can read that review here. It should also be noted that while this review will focus largely on plot of the show, the review without spoilers will focus more on the show as an overall production, including commentary on the songs and performances. For a full discussion of the show, each review works as one half of a whole opinion.
36 Questions is a story about truth. It’s a story about reality. It’s a story about whether or not love can win in the face of genuine problems in a relationship.
Early on, the show positions itself as whimsical, quirky, cutesy–and unlike the usual 500 Days of Summer or New Girl, the writing works completely in the show’s favor. The romantic, goofy writing draws the listener in just as “Natalie” and Jace were drawn to each other. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fairytale-esque idea that if the two just remember how much they love each other, everything will be find. Judith and Jace will work through their problems, rekindle their love, and go on to raise their duck while fixing up Jace’s moms’ house.
Because of this intoxicatingly sweet beginning, the mid-show drama comes easily. What’s a fairytale romance without some obstacles to overcome? If the only obstacle was Judith’s lies, the show would have started there. The listener expects turns like Jace becoming frustrated, only to forgive Judith when he learns about her Tragic Backstory. The songs and incredible performances by Jessie Shelton and Jonathan Groff make the drama feel genuine, but the twists still fit comfortably between surprising and familiar.
This is all interrupted in the third episode, when the show jerks the listener back to its thesis. This musical is about reality–it’s even the title and point of one of the show’s early ballads. Jace and Judith ending up together after Judith lied about who she was and then essentially manipulating Jace into considering the idea of taking her back is not realistic. Judith continually asserts that she is a pathological liar who will do what she needs to be loved and get her way. Jace continually asserts that while he is overly empathetic and a bit of a doormat, he’s done being taken advantage of.
When we return to Jace and Judith—-or “Natalie,” as she requests to be called again–after years worth of time skips, the two are both different people and very much the same people they were when the listeners first met them. The biggest change is in Natalie, who has seemingly come to understand that she cannot allow either of them to go through their disastrous relationship for a second time, even if they still do love each other. It could argued that the end of the show is an Inception-esque “will they/won’t they” scenario, but the two seem to understand that, realistically speaking, they will never be sustainable together.
The ending is, therefore, extremely frustrating. The listener leaves the show with more questions than expected. What exactly happened during Judith’s upbringing? Was Jace ever actually present during his marriage if he was still thinking about Judith? Is that duck at the end still Henry, or did Henry just make Jace realize he’s a duck person instead of a cat or dog person? Why is Judith deciding to go by Natalie again? Is it to distance herself from the situation, to bring Jace more closure, or something else? The listener isn’t provided any of these answers, and the show’s final song, “The Truth,” asserts that it never said it would be the kind of show to provide answers in the first place.
There’s no post-credits epilogue, no last little taste of closure for the listener, because there shouldn’t be. The frustrating end is the point of the entire show: in failed relationships, there’s never really closure, especially when the love is still alive. The fairytale romance in the beginning of the show was just that: fiction. The show left me ambivalent at best, and angry at worst, which is exactly successful. The show, like the relationship, doesn’t have an easy end, and that’s the reality.
You can listen to 36 Questions in full on any podcast streaming site by searching “Two-Up.” The music is available on Bandcamp as well as most streaming sites.