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On The Bright Sessions: Superpowers Can’t Cure Loneliness} ?> In the podcast The Bright Sessions, a scripted serialized drama about a group of misfits with superhuman abilities called Atypicals, characters explore a broader story of social isolation and the deep-seated desire for community. Writer and director Lauren Shippen surprised me by resisting clichés and overused tropes, taking The Bright Sessions to unique creative territory. Currently in its fourth season, it’s no wonder this show will have a series of YA novels published in the next year and is in development for television.
Each episode of the podcast’s first season is presented as a recorded therapy session between Dr. Joan Bright and one of her several Atypical patients. They have a lot to talk about as the patients try to understand how to cope with their developing abilities. While they have different and varied experiences with their abilities, they all struggle with social isolation: Caleb, an empath, can’t connect with his fellow high school students because he’s overwhelmed by their emotions; Sam, an orphaned time traveler, shuns other people for fear of hurting them; Chloe, a telepath, finds it difficult to be around others. Other superhuman characters occupy the margins of these episodes, suggesting similar frustrations: Frank, a homeless ex-marine, has PTSD and some Atypical abilities; Damien, an anti-social Atypical, can influence people to do his will. Each character expresses the pain of being alone, of not feeling connected to a larger group of family or friends. Shippen’s world is populated with people desperate to connect but unable to do so.
Many of the characters use aliases to enforce their social isolation, deflecting personal and familial associations. Damien, for instance, uses his alias to project an unaffected, anti-social persona. But in each of these instances of characters adopting codenames, we find people seeking to protect themselves from the very emotional vulnerability they so desperately seek.
While there are occasional moments of character crossover in these early episodes, the developing relationships between characters are only hinted at—someone is mentioned as part of therapy or patients briefly meet in the waiting room between sessions. The very structure Shippen uses in these early episodes creates an alienating quality that mirrors the feelings of loneliness characters experience because of their powers. As the series progresses, and the patients discover that Dr. Bright has other unusual clients, they begin to form relationships with each other in the hope their shared abilities will provide common ground for deeper relationships. Caleb begins his first romantic relationship with Adam, a student he saw bullied at school; Chloe and Sam become fast friends; Chloe begins art therapy with Frank to help him overcome his PTSD. Even Dr. Bright, whose cold clinical manner masks her own social isolation, opens herself up to others and shares the personal interest she has in studying Atypicals.
To reinforce this growing sense of community, Shippen shifts the narrative structure away from individual therapy sessions to characters engaging with each other outside Bright’s office. The effect of this change in the podcast’s style is profound as it shows the ongoing development of this larger theme—the search for community—and reflects Shippen’s mastery of the audio drama medium. Without the quality voice actors and scripts, these multi-character scenes would carry much less weight.
The Bright Sessions’ world of superhumans could, like in the Golden Age Superman comics, project our desire to rise above the mundane and ordinary existence to imagine something better than our human selves. However, in focusing on the crippling pain of loneliness and the desire for authentic relationship, Shippen portrays characters as real individuals, emphasizing the human over the super. Despite possessing unbelievable powers that could make them seemingly transcend humanity, the characters we encounter in these therapy sessions are fundamentally true to humanity, striving for connection and relationship in a lonely world.
In the individual therapy session, each Atypical patient describes the pain of feeling unconnected—the loneliness and isolation of feeling like they don’t belong, of wanting so badly to reach out to others and not being able to, of being so afraid of rejection and hurt that they shut themselves off. It’s a common feeling, one far too many of us have felt. But it is only in community that these characters can find any sense of belonging. And while sharing life with others is fraught with risk, with potential pain and hardship, it is only through community that one can find their place, belonging, and acceptance. Community is not easy, it’s risky and messy—as these characters discover—but through community we can discover our purpose and meaning, countering our loneliness with love and acceptance.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Latest posts by Michael Boyce (see all)
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