“What happened to the people of Limetown?” It’s the question that started what would become the number one podcast in the US, a tale of mystery and suspense that gathered comparisons to everything from The X-Files to Wayward Pines to hit podcast Serial. Having some listeners initially mistake it for a true crime podcast only added to its appeal, much like Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds radio adaptation. Over two seasons it pulled in audiences around the world and didn’t let go; now it’s become a TV series, and the mystery is somehow even creepier.
Both the podcast and the series start from the same point. Over a decade ago, something happened at Limetown, a scientific research facility in Tennessee. A 911 call was made, but when police arrived the gates were shut, the facility’s security wouldn’t let them inside and eventually they were told to stand down. Three days later the gates opened, but there was no trace of the over 300 people working on the site. They’d been led by Dr Oskar Totem, a scientist who’d promised them their research would create a new world; his remains were the only ones ever found.
Taking podcast listeners through this story is Lia Haddock, a reporter for American Public Radio. She was drawn to the mystery because her uncle Emile was one of the people who vanished; through a mix of investigation and interview she gradually draws a picture of a town where something very wrong has happened – and just might be happening still.
For a podcast, Limetown has a surprisingly vivid, almost visual narrative; it’s no surprise that series creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie first met at film school. Some of the episodes are little more than brief bulletins updating one element of the story in between episodes, others function almost as teasers like you’d find at the end of a television episode. Adding pictures was always the next logical stage; enter Limetown the series.
Here Jessica Biel plays a more-fleshed out version of Lia. She’s still hitting the streets interviewing witnesses, but there’s now more flashbacks to her youth, filling in her relationship with her missing uncle (Stanley Tucci). There’s also more of a look into how an award-winning (fictional) podcast gets made; while the original podcast was presented to us as, well, a podcast, here we get to see more of how Lia goes about putting all the pieces together. You know a podcaster is committed to her story when you see her actively memorising the names and addresses of the missing.
At first the mystery seems to be going down the same path as the podcast. Lia starts out talking to the obvious people to speak to; other reporters on the case, an FBI agent assigned to the mystery, some of the loved ones of the missing who, like Lia, believe that their nearest and dearest are still out there. It’s not until she gets a mysterious (and frantic) call from Winona (Kelly Jenrette), who says she’s an actual survivor of what went on that things kick into high gear.
Even if you think you know what’s coming, the series has enough surprises to keep you on your toes. A big part of that is thanks to having visuals to play with. It’s one thing to hear about how Dr Totem (here played by Alessandro Juliani) died, it’s another entirely to see his charred body crucified on a lamp post. And when the series eventually gets around to flashing back to what Totem and his team were up to in Limetown, things start to get truly nightmarish.
It seems that the experiments at the Limetown facility had something to do with developing or enhancing some kind of brain-implant-assisted telepathy. Winona’s memory is scattered; there seems to be things she’s being prevented from talking about, and the gaps in her memory are large enough to swallow whole family members. For Lia, it rapidly becomes clear that whatever happened in the past is far from over, and having a man yelling “this is your warning” while he’s bashing his head on her hotel room door is only the start of what she’s going to have to face.
There’s a good reason why Limetown was so successful as a podcast. It’s the kind of mystery that doesn’t let go, packed with carefully crafted reveals and cliffhangers. The television version builds on that solid grounding, generating an eerie sense of dread that comes to underlie everything Lia encounters on her quest for the truth. This is one adaptation where a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Stream Limetown at SBS On Demand now.
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