NOTE: This review is spoiler free-ish. I don’t mention many details of the content (nothing that isn’t in episode descriptions) and I don’t think anything I say here would deduct from anyone’s enjoyment of the podcast.
Title: Dead Eyes
Hosted by: Connor Ratliff
In 2000, Connor Ratliff was cast in a small role for HBO’s forthcoming TV series Band of Brothers. However, before filming for his episode began, Connor was fired from the project because co-creator Tom Hanks allegedly believed that Connor had “dead eyes”.
This podcast sees Connor now, 20 years later, delving back into this experience. It’s a funny, frustrating and unflinching look at the current entertainment industry that all culminates in the final episode, where Connor sits down with Tom Hanks himself.
What I loved
“Dead Eyes” is a podcast in which Connor Ratliff not only investigates his own painful incident, but interviews fellow actors and other entertainment industry professionals about their “dead eyes” experiences. When talking to his guests, Connor is very open and willing to share intimate details of the emotions he went through after being fired. Thanks perhaps to how candid he is, his guests are often very open too.
Such guests include Maya Rudolph, Zach Braff, Ben Schwartz, Aparna Nancherla, Nicole Byer, Elijah Wood, D’Arcy Carden, Seth Rogan, Ira Glass and more. Alongside these giants Connor also interviews actors you probably won’t have heard of – people who usually play bit roles, unnamed characters and extras. Each give their two cents on what happened to Connor, and share their own stories too. Not only does this make for an, at times, emotional and touching podcast, it also gives us a really good overall look at the US entertainment industry, on all levels.
Outside of its ability to present Hollywood in this really eye-opening way, what makes this podcast so great is Connor himself. Our host is totally charming and lovable, and perfectly aware of how self-absorbed it is to frame an entire 31-episode long podcast around one incident that happened to him decades ago. “Dead Eyes” could have easily tipped into something rather obnoxious or too self-indulging, but instead, due to his positive and reflective attitude, it is something entirely relatable and very human.
This is by no means a revenge podcast; Connor is not out to destroy Tom Hanks’ reputation. Instead, it is a look into one man’s journey overcoming and learning from failure.
And in obscene detail too! Not only do we see Connor track down various casting people who were involved in the process of getting him in and out of Band of Brothers, he also digs up relevant relics of his past, including a comic strip he drew shortly after the incident which was a recreation of his Band of Brothers experience.
Music plays a role too, as Connor in one episode sits down with singer-songwriter Aimee Mann whose album “Bachelor No. 2, or the Last Remains of the Dodo” acted as a kind of soundtrack and source of comfort to Connor when he was struggling to make sense of what happened to him. There is more to say about Aimee Mann, but I think it’s best that that part of the podcast is left as a nice surprise.
Not only is “Dead Eyes” brimming with detail, it’s also very accessible. You don’t need to be involved in or want to be involved in the entertainment industry to enjoy this. You don’t need to know all the guests either (being British myself there were a few guests who I’m sure are beloved in the USA but due to their shows not having a huge amount of traction in the UK (like Saturday Night Live) were total strangers to me). Because although this is a podcast about people it’s not really about their prestige or how famous they are. Instead, it’s about their feelings and emotions surrounding pride and failure.
So you don’t need to be an actor or producer to enjoy “Dead Eyes”. If you’ve ever not gotten that promotion or that job offer, or just experienced any type of failure, then there’s something for you here.
What I didn’t love
I think the beginning of the series could have been planned better. It takes a few episodes for Connor and Headgum to really know where the podcast was going, and while I appreciate that they probably needed to write those early episodes in order to arrive at the destination, it does make for some tedious listening early on. This is because the first few episodes involve a lot of repetition where Connor recounts what happened to him. There’s nothing wrong with a quick refresher, but I did find myself increasing the play speed sometimes.
All in all
Although the podcast takes a few episodes to find its footing, once it gets going, you’re in for the ride! As the series progresses and the podcast gains traction, Connor is able to access people higher and higher up the Hollywood ladder, and able to speak to people who are very close to Tom (including his own son, Colin Hanks). This creates a fast pace and feeling of suspense, as the listener patiently listens to Connor sit down with seemingly everyone in Hollywood who has ever interacted with Tom Hanks (on a small- and on a large-scale), waiting for the final episode where he gets to interview the man himself.
And oh boy, is it worth it!
From the word go, episode 31 is the one you’re waiting for; the conclusion that you know has to happen for the podcast to be able to end. And it’s worth the wait. The rest of the podcast has so much heart, and goes into such detail, that it would be a real shame to skip to the end. Like any good story, you need all that intrigue in order to be able to really feel the pay offs. When I finally got to the last episode, I had genuine flutters in my stomach, nervous for both Connor and Tom regarding how things would go.
So if you’re in for a podcast that you can really dive into and get taken along for the ride, then this is the podcast for you!