In Crime Town, political documentary meets drama and is served to listeners with a dressing of blood mixed with sugar. The blood is to be expected; this is a criminal podcast about mobsters and their impact on cities across America, starting in Rode Island, Providence. No Crimetown podcast review could avoid mentioning the sugar in the morbid appeal of mobsters, corruption and political power. Think Serial meets the Godfather… that's not a bad combination, is it?
It seems likely that the success of Serial (250 million downloads and counting) lead Gimlet Media to decide they should tap into the market for crime and shady happenings. We're glad they did.
The podcast opens with mayor Cianci torturing a man with a log and then stuffing a lit cigarette into his eye. It's not for everyone - it left me feeling about 15kg heavier by the end of episode one - but it does command attention.
You’ll notice that the narrative isn’t a smooth, linear progression. Instead, it's somewhat unfocused, bouncing between characters and events with dizzying but captivating twists and turns. The topics range from the colourful personality of characters to the political context of the times and the impact events had on the children of those involved. I don't mind this lack of focus too much. More depth and exploration of the events would be nice, but the depth they go into is just about sufficient to keep you engaged without losing sight of the story.
There's just one major sin on the part of Gimlet Media that really dulls down the storytelling; the near-endless repetition of content. Yes - maybe it's ok to repeat a quote two or three times, but don't make it sound like reality TV.
The structure of the storytelling is such that each episode is a bundle of mini-stories and the episodes don't have obvious sequential links with the next one, which reduces the sense of narrative unfolding before you. At the end of each episode, I never felt immediately compelled to start the next one to find out 'what would happen next'. Each episode is so good it doesn't need a strong overarching narrative to keep you coming back. The intriguing characters take care of that.
It actually makes a lot of sense to structure the episodes as collections of little stories. Each episode reflects the chaos of the events it’s presenting because in real life things unfold as a series of interconnected small events, not one strong storyline like you'd find in fiction. Gimlet Media have captured the chaos, uncertainty, and confusion of the times and succeed in taking you as close to it as they can get you with the audio recordings they have.
The presenters also bring you as deep into the story as possible. Zoe Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling sound notably emotionally detached from the events. By keeping their own personalities small, they leave more room for the personalities of the characters in the story they are weaving together.
The background music frames the narrative as an exciting epic tale rather than a series of recent tragedies. The Crimetown podcast listener is the modern-day version of a Roman sat high up in a colosseum, sipping wine as blood spills in a far-off pit. Detached, safe, entertained. If it wasn’t for the gentle buzz from the music, you’d feel depressed rather than thrilled, but music is a great buffer. On occasion, Gimlet Media have used solemn hymns to mix things up, which feels suitably heavy given the topics covered.
But don’t think Crime Town is only about morbid emotional appeal, it’s got substance too.
What intellectual value does Crimetown have?
- You see the complexity of characters, in all their greyness, rather than the polarised black and white perspectives we’re often presented within the media.
- You see how charisma can conceal corruption. Buddy Cianci was voted as mayor even after being caught torturing somebody with a lit cigarette and log of wood.
- You see how corruption can be hard to detect. Cianci presented himself as an anti-corruption candidate and was known for being a decent community loving man - but he was also crooked.
- You gain an insight into the sociopolitical environment in the late 20th Century in America’s smallest state through the voices of real people with raw stories.
So, yeah, there's some intellectual value in there too - feel free to use this as a rationalization to cover up the fact you’re as morbid as hell and just like bingeing on life or death drama with a good dashing of criminal activity!
If you’ve ever wanted a chance to be a fly on the wall in rooms with gangsters and corrupt governors, the Crimetown podcast is your chance.