'Limetown' Review: The Cult Favorite Podcast Has A Tough Time Jumping To Streaming Series [TIFF 2019]

When the podcast Limetown debuted in 2015, it was an immediate cult hit, arriving in the wake of the great Welcome to Night Vale, and alongside shows like The Black Tapes and Nightvale spinoff Alice Isn't Dead, as part of a scripted podcast renaissance. While the idea of scripted podcasts aren't new—they're basically just independently produced versions of old-school radio dramas—scripted podcasts developed to sound like nonfiction radio programs were still pretty novel four years ago. Creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie took a number of cues from Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, but they were just as influenced by This American Life and the runaway success of Serial just the year before. The result was a show that felt extremely real, and a little disorienting at times because of how legitimate it sounded. It was also startlingly scary, making great use of its audio medium to create a growing sense of dread, punctuated by jump scares that used the listener's imagination to make them even more frightening. Limetown did great job of hooking the listener, lulling them into a state of seeming security, then either slowly cranking up the sense of discomfort or introducing an unexpected, freaky piece of audio right at the last second.Limetown has since grown, spawning a second season of the podcast, a novel tie-in and now a Facebook Watch series run by Akers and Bronkie, and starring Jessica Biel as American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock. The Toronto International Film Festival premiered the first two episodes of the series, and while it's definitely intriguing enough to sustain an audience, it's clear that Akers and Bronkie haven't yet figured out how to transfer the series' compelling audio storytelling into equally compelling visuals.Like the podcast, Limetown tells the story of Biel's Lia Haddock trying to solve the mystery of the titular town, which in the world of the show was established in Tennessee in 2003 as a scientific research facility and utopian society. Just two years later, after an unexplained catastrophe, all of Limetown's 300 residents mysteriously vanished, including Lia's uncle Emile (Stanley Tucci). As Lia works to uncover the ultimate fate of those 300 missing people, additional secrets about the nature of the facility's research start to emerge, as do mounting threats against Lia and her sources.While Limetown the podcast felt tight and well-planned, Limetown the show struggles to establish solid footing. Many of these problems come from the character of Lia herself. While the audio version allowed her to play the role of host and serve as a curious audience surrogate, the visual version of the show, with its significantly expanded narrative, doesn't really seem to know what to do with her. Biel's Lia requires a good deal more character development than the podcast gave her, and while Akers and Bronkie do provide a little more context here, there are several moments with her that feel like they were thrown in just to fill time, and in general don't provide nearly enough information as to Lia's life outside the story, making it hard to care about her.Other areas of the show suffer from awkward exposition-speak, as if Akers, Bronkie and writer Kelly Wiles don't trust the audience to be able to follow along with the story, although in the scenes where it pops up, it's easy enough to imply the necessary information. Often, this dialogue comes from Lia's producer Gina (Sherri Saum), who has the thankless task of having to tell Lia—a seasoned journalist—how to do her job in most basic of ways. Granted, Lia isn't always the most skilled at gathering audio (a phone call from a source which she records by holding her phone up to a studio mic would be laughable to anyone who's actually had to record an interview), so maybe she needs the reminder.Despite these issues, there are still parts of Limetown that suggest it might be worth staying tuned to see how the series progresses. Its central mystery is still intriguing, and the visual of a contemporary ghost town hiding some unsettling secrets still carries a lot of weight. The major scares of the podcast's early episodes are also still fairly effective in their visual form. It certainly helps that the first episode opens with what is easily the podcast's scariest moment: a crazed stranger charging at Lia's hotel room in the middle of the night, moaning and screaming threats at her as he repeatedly smashes his head against her door. Limetown has a long way to go to prove that its streaming adaptation actually adds anything to the experience of the podcast. If anything, it feels like an experiment that's still in its early stages. However, though it's produced faltering results so far, the premise of the show, and the suggestion of its eerie reveals yet to come, are interesting enough that it's a fine investment of time for curious viewers. That abandoned neuroscience facility in Tennessee still has some freaky stories and weird characters up its sleeves. Hopefully they'll prove worth sticking around for./Film Rating: 5 out of 10