The Apology Line: Familiar internet creepery with a vintage telephone feel

Wondery

In 1980, Allan Bridge had an inspired idea for a conceptual art project and established a telephone line for repentant wrongdoers. A kind of modern day confessional, Bridge and others listened in as thieves, adulterers, drug dealers, and the sick-minded left voicemail messages apologizing for — and occasionally gloating about — their sins.

What began as a compelling art installation turned into a years-long obsession for it’s creator, and in The Apology Line the full story is recounted by Allan’s then wife Marissa.

Unfortunately, the podcast is somewhat less captivating than the idea and line itself.

This series is just too long. In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to excellent, blistering documentary podcasts that effortlessly fit extraordinary detail into short, snappy episodes. The Apology Line, however, feels like producers did some considerable gymnastics to spread the story over six. Consequently, many of its central themes feel labored. The drama peaks infrequently. And because the story holds so much promise, we are left waiting for pay-offs that never really come.

In fact, nothing much happens. Most of the interest is generated by crackling clips of oddballs saying (slightly) taboo things. Strip these away, and all that’s left is the story of an artist who didn’t know when to call it quits on a spent concept. Who dragged an idea out for a long while past its sell-by date, trying to make a living from it while simultaneously refusing to let anyone “exploit” the purity of it.

Any “exciting incidents” pertaining to the line itself — what we’re really here for — begin and end with Ritchie, a phony serial killer Allan becomes fixated on. The Ritchie story goes nowhere in particular (though it’s still strung over several episodes…), and as a listener its starts to dawn why this story has never surfaced as an artsy independent movie or a well-known documentary film.

The drawn-out Ritchie back-and-forth also, ultimately, serves to alienate the audience from the main protagonist. Allan indulges in long conversations with the faux-villainous creep, cultivating a relationship with him to the exclusion of other callers. These exchanges are clearly supposed to sound profound, with Allan taking Ritchie on, but Frost v.s Nixon this is not and it can feel like we’re listening in on the ramblings of a couple of teenage potheads.

In the final episode, we’re evidently supposed to have come to appreciate Allan and his talent. We’re maybe even supposed to like him and the ragtag crew of lonely folks he assembled via the line. But it’s tough when right up until the end he’s been invariably portrayed as precious, vain, sulky, reckless, and delusional.

The real crux of the problem with The Apology Line, however, is that the archives of oral testimony it relies upon just aren’t edgy enough for our 21st century sensibilities. We are immersed in a digital world where Ritchies — and a whole lot worse — are ten a penny. The novelty of hearing someone confess to even the most heinous crimes evaporated along with our innocence back in the late 1990s.

We can access this kind of stuff (should we want to) at the click of a button. Personal confessionals that shocked or moved in the early 80s now fail to pierce our jaded elephant hides.

In episode 3, faced with the prospect of the line being axed, one regular caller explains what he has enjoyed about it:

“Where I think Apology is valuable is as a social document. I think there was a large body of real confession and apology of a type that shows a range of human experiences that we rarely have access to. It’s been fascinating.”

It’s the evolution of this access to the human experience, that it is now much less rare, that softens the impact of these recordings.

But that’s not to detract from the project within its own context. The line itself was a groundbreaking experiment, and does leave us with a fun and mostly interesting piece of social history, but the listener doesn’t walk away from this retelling with much. We perhaps get confirmation that some people need to talk and others to listen, and while that may be pertinent in these troubling times, The Apology Line promises so much more.

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