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It's Not That Dark in Fern Canyon But OK 

Wolf Entertainment's Dark Woods Podcast

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Dark Woods

The folks who produced Law & Order, Dick Wolf and Wolf Entertainment, have brought a new murder mystery right to your backyard in the form of Dark Woods, a scripted podcast series set in mid-2000s Humboldt County. Written by David Pergonline, it falls into some familiar Humboldt clichés but entertains with well-paced storytelling.

When the body of Chelsea Brookes, a Humboldt Redwoods State Park aide, is found in Fern Canyon, a complex web of crime and corruption deeply rooted in local politics unravels. Unable to accept that his young aide's death was simply an accident, Fish and Game Warden Mark Ellis sets out on his own vigilante quest to find justice. His ex-wife, Eureka City Councilmember Laura Romero, is up for reelection, though falling quickly in the polls. Laura refuses to sign a deal with Petras West, a resource extraction company that would claim thousands of acres of state park, but also provide thousands of jobs for a region hit hard by the recession. More than she knows, Laura, too, is entangled in Chelsea's death. By the end of episode No. 2, a troubling thread emerges between her and Mark's seemingly unrelated plights.

There is a lot to like about Dark Woods. Production is top quality, with a star-heavy cast of voice actors reading sincerity into the script. Seasoned cast members include Corey Stoll and Monica Raymund, of House of Cards and Chicago Fire, respectively. The skill of the voice actors saves sometimes predictable conversations, making exchanges feel genuine. And that's especially important in a podcast, where dialogue, rather than action or setting, drive the plot forward. Dark Woods has got all the elements of a typical thriller: a good-hearted, justice-seeking hero who's gone rogue, a dead girl around whom the entire fictional universe revolves but who isn't actually a character, and an organized crime ring. But there's just enough spin on these conventions to keep the podcast interesting.

Some kudos to Dark Woods for its complex and multidimensional depiction of Latinx characters. Spoiler: Yes, a cartel is involved in a giant cannabis grow and that plotline feels pretty tired. However, the writers bring other nuanced Latinx characters to the podcast for balance: ambitious Petras West attorney Maria Campbell, councilwoman Romero and Miguel, the HSU ecology TA with Asperger's, whose research in Humboldt's fisher population is a catalyst for the plot.

The writing relies heavily on tropes about Humboldt County (extreme isolation, illegal cannabis grows, murder, poverty, etc.) that we've seen relatively recently in shows like Netflix's Murder Mountain (2018) and Hulu's Sasquatch (2021), (which I highly recommend for a good LOL). Dark Woods, too, sensationalizes Humboldt's "seamy underbelly," which deserves at least a little eye roll and it's evident the writers haven't spent enough time in the area. Still, they've done enough research that Dark Woods paints (albeit with broad strokes) an intriguing picture of the historic push-pull between environmental conservation and the cannabis industry.

Whatever flaws, factual or otherwise, Dark Woods may have, the story is intriguing and fast paced. But partly because of the medium, like the radio plays of yesteryear, and partly because we are locals, we get to fill in the blanks for ourselves, making the podcast an engaging listen.

For those who prefer to watch mysteries unfold on screen, get your popcorn ready — Dark Woods has already been picked up for a TV adaptation.

Cassie Curatolo (she/her) works for the English, Philosophy, Journalism and Communication Departments at Humboldt State University. She enjoys gardening, roller skating and baseless speculation.

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