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  • ‘Crimetown’ Podcast Gives New Form to Old Ideas

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    Popular podcast Crimetown recently concluded its first season, which focused on Providence. [by Gimlet Media]

    Warwick, RI — After 18 episodes, the popular Crimetown podcast recently wrapped its first season. Created by accomplished producers Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, Crimetown delved into stories that many Rhode Islanders will know all too well: The rise and fall of Buddy Cianci, the state’s history with the Mafia, the banking crisis, and the sense that Rhode Island has never really washed off the stink of corruption.

    Over the course of the season, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier presented first-person accounts from mob wise guys and the law enforcement officials who pursued them, and recordings of Cianci and other Rhode Island political figures that added interesting color to the black-and-white outlines of these stories.

    For listeners outside of Little Rhody, a lot of these stories must seem outlandish, bordering on fiction; but they’re true, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier warwick-post-commentaryrepeatedly explain.

    If there’s a single overarching lesson to take from season 1 of Crimetown, it’s that you just can’t make this stuff up: Mob associates helping Cianci get elected mayor; the state’s first female cardiologist falling in love with a known mobster; former Atty. Gen. Arlene Violet facing the realization that she wasn’t going to break ‘The Network’ of connected politicians; Cianci serving his sentence in the ‘Plunder Dome’ case with notorious drug dealer Charles ‘The Ghost’ Kennedy at Ft. Dix.

    “Providence, Rhode Island, is a special place,” Stuart-Pontier says at the end of every episode. It’s said almost as a cliche, though it’s no less true because it’s pithy.

    A lot of the themes from Crimetown are like that: You could pick them up from almost any story, but it’s the fabric of Rhode Island that makes them unique.

    Rhode Island is Providence, and Providence is Rhode Island

    Any mention of cities and towns outside of Providence are made in passing: There’s the parking lot in Warwick near the airport where Gerald and Harold Tillinghast murdered George Basmajian; there’s the remote estate of Kennedy in East Greenwich; there’s the Ann & Hope store in Cumberland [which the producers first misidentified as being in Massachusetts, and later corrected].

    In ‘Crimetown,’ all of these locations are only satellites, minor bodies that revolve around the center of the Rhode Island universe, Providence.

    The capitol city is where Raymond Patriarca runs the New England mob, it’s where Cianci lives out his near-Shakespearean tragedy, it’s where Violet takes on the General Assembly — Providence is as much a character in Crimetown as the people.

    Problem is, this is a skewed vision of the state, as any resident [or savvy politician] would tell you. Looking at Rhode Island through the lens of Providence is like looking through a paper-towel tube: There’s no peripheral vision possible.

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    Then again, if the intent was to make a compelling podcast, Providence is arguably the only place in Rhode Island where all of the best ingredients can be found.

    Women are the supporting cast

    Give Stuart-Pontier and Smerling credit where it’s due: Crimetown includes many voices of women who were part of the narrative yarns they’re spinning over 18 shows.

    Still, these women — from Dr. Barbara Roberts [“the doctor broad”], to an exotic dancer identified only as “Michelle,” to Violet [“Attila the Nun”], to mobster’s daughter Nicole Ouimette — are, at best, supporting players in the drama that unfolds in Crimetown.

    Time and again, the women express themselves, only to see their agency overwhelmed by the men in their lives.

    With the exception of Violet, these women are used to serve the purposes of powerful men and seem to have no regrets about it.

    Even Violet, though, doesn’t emerge unharmed; she describes her reelection loss in 1986 as a rebuke by “The Network” of politicians who were later able to pull their money out of the failing RISDIC bank system and got away with it.

    While Crimetown doesn’t make such blatant statements about sexism in Rhode Island — Roberts and Violet are credited as pioneers in their respective fields, which is admirable — it’s an undercurrent that runs through the season.

    Even in death, Buddy is a gold mine

    There are more than a few ironies about the release schedule for Crimetown, not the least of which is that it came out following Cianci’s death in January, 2016.

    While it’s not made explicit in the podcast, it seems that with Cianci dead, the author of his autobiography, David Fischer, could make hours of tape-recordings public.

    It’s from those recordings, some of them made in busy Providence restaurants, that Cianci’s voice returns from beyond the grave: The profane language, the cigarette-smoke-rattle in his laugh, the stories told from his perspective.

    And it doesn’t take much for those stories to provide their own narrative power; Stuart-Pontier and Smerling don’t really have to over-describe or amplify what Buddy is saying. Left to his own devices, Cianci is a storyteller in his own right who doesn’t need any help.

    In the season finale, Cianci describes breaking up a potential fight among inmates by reminding them that they’d all wind up in solitary confinement for reporting the apparent theft of toothpaste. Instead, Cianci recounts, he took up a collection from the inmates to help the suspected thief and keep a fragile peace among the convicts.

    That’s a story that, if it were told by almost anyone else, would strike most people as unbelievable. But because this is Buddy, and because this is Crimetown, there’s no shaking the feeling that he’s telling the truth — even if it’s only his version of it.

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    Season 1 ends, but Rhode Island’s story continues

    With a program so intent on reliving the past, bringing up events more current than Cianci’s funeral arguably wouldn’t have fit. Still, ending the season’s timeline on that snowy day in January, 2016, potentially leaves listeners with the impression that Rhode Island remains stuck in that time and place.

    Take the presentation of the women’s supporting roles during the season in light of Gina Raimondo’s election as the state’s first woman governor in 2014. That historic achievement doesn’t even get a mention in the 11 ½ hours of the show.

    Instead, postscripts for the season focus on the characters who populated the 18 episodes: Most of the once-powerful mobsters are dead; Bobby Wallison became an infomercial salesman; Kennedy is still alive and out of the drug-dealing business after spending time in prison; and Cianci is both revered and reviled after his death.

    This gives the impression that nothing has really changed in Rhode Island, except maybe the names. Then again, when a state rep is arrested for lying about where he lives and two others are charged with embezzling money, maybe that reputation is not altogether unfair.

    Crimetown lives up to its aspirations

    As is the case with most podcasts, Crimetown has a simple goal: To tell compelling stories through an immersive auditory experience.

    With sound effects, hours of recorded interviews, and clips from past television reports, Crimetown paints a detailed, if limited, picture of Rhode Island’s history.

    It’s that limited perspective — eight of the 18 episodes focus on Cianci — that is, at the same time, the strongest and weakest part of the first season.

    As a trove of interesting stories, Cianci is virtually unrivaled in Rhode Island. But he was only one person in a much larger tapestry of crime, politics, and money, so the degree to which his personality looms large over Crimetown tends to drown out the other people who are featured in the series — and that’s quite a feat, considering who those other people are.

    In the end, Crimetown presents stories from Rhode Island’s past in a new form and provides several hours of entertaining listening, whether by people who grew up in Rhode Island and only heard about these stories secondhand, or by those who may already know a little about the state.

    By that measure, Crimetown season one does its job — nothing more and nothing less.

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